Friday, February 9, 2007

Homeless in New York

In the fashionable Tribeca section of Manhattan is an art design studio called TAMA Gallery owned by my long-time friends, Craig Scharlin and Lilia Villanueva. It used to be caled TAMAD after the Juan Tamad Imports business they established in Berkeley decades ago before they moved. The morning I visited them, as Lilia opened the door to greet me, a neighbor, actor Vincent D’Onofrio, passed by and warmly greeted Lilia. I was impressed.

“Well, actually,” Lilia smiled as we entered her high-end furniture gallery, “there are several other celebs who live on our street — Gywneth Paltrow and Chris Martin, Edward Albee, Mariah Carey, Kevin Spacey and that’s just the ones I know about. De Niro’s Tribeca penthouse pad is around the corner, across from the famous Nobu restaurant he owns with partners.”

Later, as we left Lilia’s gallery to eat at the Cendrillon, the premier Filipino restaurant in SoHo, Lilia waved and pointed to another resident of Tribeca whom she sees on a regular basis, a man in his 30s who seemed to be putting some clothes on while seated on the curb.

“That’s Pedro,” Lilia said, “he’s a homeless Filipino.”

What? There’s a homeless Filipino in America? It sounded strange. Yes I know, given the fact that there are now 3.5 million Filipinos in America (up from the 2.4-M estimate 7 years ago in the 2000 Census - which excluded 500,000 undocumented Filipinos), it would be statistically improbable for there not to be homeless Filipinos among the millions of homeless people in America.

It’s just that in our Filipino culture, we generally take care of our own. Somehow, there is always some relative or some kababayan out there willing to take care of a Filipino in need of food and shelter. It's our social security system.

Lilia narrated that when they first opened their art gallery in 2002, this guy just showed up at their doorstep peering inside. Lilia opened the door and immediately felt the sting of a foul stench.

As Lilia recovered from the smell, the man spoke. “Are you a Filipino?” he asked. When Lilia nodded with her hand covering her nose, he said “ako rin” (me too).

Pedro told her he was from Iloilo (his mother’s side) and had immigrated to the US when he was 9 years old. He still spoke Ilongo, which Lilia could speak too as she came from nearby Bacolod. When asked, he refused to reveal where he slept or where he cleaned himself - maski di-in lang da – ‘wherever’) and said getting food is never a problem. New York’s restaurants are probably the most generous to the homeless and needy in the country so Lilia was not surprised.

Pedro wanted Lilia to be his friend. Lilia was open to it but made it a condition of their friendship that he would not ever ask her for money. He agreed.

In a later visit, Pedro asked to use Lilia’s phone to call his sister in Texas. Lilia gave him the phone and after he reached his sister, Meldy, he introduced her to Lilia.

Meldy was grateful that Pedro had found a friend, a kababayan in New York. Pedro had one other friend in the City, a Filipino nurse in the psychiatric ward of the Bellevue Hospital where he would often be admitted to after being picked up in the streets by the New York Police.

Lilia learned from Meldy that Pedro is a schizophrenic but that he was not always so. Once, she said, he was the brightest and smartest of them all, the 9 siblings who immigrated to the US with their parents in the early 80s. Pedro had been a sous chef at one of the top restaurants in Los Angeles, she said. He was in great shape physically and anything he set his mind to, he could do and do well, she added.

But Pedro’s life changed dramatically when his beloved mother died, Meldy recounted. His personality changed, he began to have hallucinations, causing him to withdraw from his family and society, retreating into an inner shell, talking to no one but himself.

Pedro’s siblings from all over the US took turns taking care of him. Then one day, while in the care of one brother, Pedro disappeared. After a frantic search, they learned that he had made his way to New York, living in and off the streets, joining the legion of homeless in the Big Apple.

Schizophrenia is a severely disabling brain disease affecting approximately 1 percent of the US population (almost 3 million in the US). The disease causes its sufferers to hear internal voices, to believe that others are reading their minds, controlling their thoughts, or plotting to harm them. These symptoms may leave them fearful and withdrawn, their speech and behavior so disorganized as to be incomprehensible or even frightening to others.

Large numbers of America’s homeless suffer from schizophrenia, unable to work and maintain normal lives. In the 50s and 60s, many of them were cared for in state mental hospitals but that all changed in the early 70s when California Gov. Ronald Reagan eliminated state funding for the mentally disabled forcing many mental hospitals to shut down and release their patients to live out on their own. Other states followed California and the homeless crisis in America was full blown.

Lilia recounted that one day she received a call from Meldy asking her to pass on to Pedro the news that their Uncle Joseling had died, without any children, leaving all his property in Iloilo to Pedro and his siblings. The brothers and sisters, Meldy told Lilia, had agreed they would give the property for Pedro to use. They wanted Pedro to go back to Iloilo and live in their uncle's house where he would be properly cared for by maids and live off the money the siblings would gladly provide.

Lilia was tasked with relaying this news to Pedro, but she was not quite sure how to convince Pedro to accept the gift. She would try her best as she was convinced this would be best for him.

The next day when Pedro showed up at the gallery, Lilia was all smiles and excited to tell him the good news. She told him that all his siblings were willing to give him their share of their uncle's inheritance because they all love him and care for his welfare.

“This would solve all your problems, Pedro. You wouldn’t have to worry about finding a place to sleep every night, or what to eat. You wouldn’t have to fear police officers or thugs. You could get all the medical treatment you need to get better,” Lilia explained.

Pedro listened intently, nodding his head. At the end of Lilia’s pitch, however, Pedro said “no”.

“What will I do in Iloilo? No way!” he said. The voices inside of Pedro’s head had rejected the idea of leaving the dangerous but familiar streets of New York for the safe, secure but unfamiliar life in Iloilo.

No matter what Lilia said, Pedro was determined not to allow her to change his mind. He was adamant that he would not leave the streets of New York. No way.

When you go to Tribeca (TRIangle BElow CAnal) in New York, you may not bump into DeNiro, Gwyneth, Chris, Mariah, Spacey, Albee or D’Onofrio but you may run into Pedro. You can't miss him. Say hi.

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