I am NOT homeless!

I have a home!

My home is the United States of America!

James Mark Rippee
James Mark Rippee after his motorcycle accident June 1987

Listen to the words above. Say them aloud. And try not to feel stirred. Angry. Transformed. Try not to feel inspired to stop what you’re doing and throw your energies into a cause that is becoming a national movement.

Maybe you can do this. Maybe you can hear those words and remain unmoved. Maybe you can hear them and shrug and turn back to the duties of your day.

I cannot. I can’t stop hearing them. I hear those words as fierce poetry. More to the point, I hear them as a manifesto, one that should take its place among the great declarations that have defined our nation and our obligations toward it, and its most maimed and outcast citizens.

I hear it delivered with the same patriotic pitch as “Give Me Liberty Or Give Me Death.” “The Better Angels of Our Nature.” “Ask Not What Your Country Can Do for You; Ask What You Can Do for Your Country.” “We Can Do Better.”

The words are the more compelling in that they were uttered–on Wednesday, October 2–by a man so grievously crushed by brain injury, schizophrenia, blindness, broken bones, and more than twelve years struggling for life on the streets that one hardly imagines him capable of speaking a coherent sentence, much less this burst of eloquence.

And this is exactly the fundamental barrier that inhibits people and political bodies from doing more to rescue the mentally ill who cling to existence in desperate circumstances–to rescue the mentally ill, period. Consciously or unconsciously, they are seen as not fully human. Monsters. Half-sentient beings who “don’t even know they’re living that way; but perhaps they like living that way,” in the considered analysis of the current president of the United States.

These are essential reasons why, as it has been said, no one cares about crazy people.

The man who spoke this manifesto is James Mark Rippee of Vacaville, California. You know Mark’s story if you have followed several entries in my blog. Nearly killed in a collision while riding his motorcycle in June 1987 that blinded him and left parts of his brain in an alfalfa field; prohibited by his distraught father (who died of a stroke a few years later) from commitment to an institution; endurer of nearly fifty operations to remove abscesses from his brain; cared for by his sisters Linda and CJ until his violent psychotic episodes made him a danger in the household; a street refugee for a dozen years and counting as the two sisters have petitioned his case to the blind eyes and deaf ears of numerous agencies and levels of government.

Mark Rippee

The sisters’ goal is simple, and reasonable to anyone with a bit more compassion than God gave a goose, or a Solano County pol: to secure conservatorship for Mark a measure that allows county public health officials to steer mentally ill and homeless people toward housing and medical treatment without their consent.

(The requirement of consent has, for more than half a century, stood as a vexed impediment to providing medical and psychiatric care for people in psychosis who refuse to admit that they need it. Designed to protect such victims from fraud and predators, “consent” in practice has blocked emergency help victims of psychosis who will not or cannot admit they are ill.)

Linda and CJ have fought across two decades for their brother’s reclamation–for some mechanism of policy that would remove him from the streets where he has been routinely ridiculed, robbed, and beaten up–and into some safe place; some room; some bed; some sanctuary where doctors could nourish him, salve his wounds, give him medications to tame the psychotic demons inside him.

No agency in the state of California is interested. California harbors half the homeless people in the United States, and so the violate humanity of Mark Rippee has not sunk in. He is just another statistic. The Solano County Board of Supervisors has long since grown tired of the sisters’ petitions and their pleading. They have stopped pretending to care. They say that Mark Rippee is not their responsibility. Linda and CJ believe otherwise. But they have lacked the money and the access to public attention to make their case.

Wavelets of sympathy, gestures toward “doing something,” arise and fade. And Mark Rippee edges ever-closer to a sordid death on the streets of Vacaville.

Ironically–and ironies glut the world of mental illness–it has taken another vehicle accident to galvanize a fresh groundswell of support for Mark Rippee’s cause.

On the evening of September 14, as Mark wandered blindly along Monte Vista Avenue in Vacaville, he stumbled into traffic and was hit by a car. (Until then, he miraculously had eluded such a mishap during his years on the streets.) His head struck the concrete pavement, re-opening the abscess behind one of his eye sockets. The pain evidently was so intense that this time Mark agreed to be hospitalized.

At this writing, October 4, Mark remains in a Vacaville hospital. His sister Linda has been with him. (CJ’s mobility has been limited by illness.)

It was a nurse’s question about Mark’s residency, and Linda’s response to it, that prompted Mark’s burst of eloquence.

“The nurse came in [to Mark’s room] and questioned me about what equipment or help he has at home,” Linda told me by email. “I said without thinking, ‘He is homeless.’ And Mark loudly said, ‘I am NOT homeless. My home is the United States of America!'”

Linda added, “If only he knew how he was abandoned by his own country.”

Mark Rippee’s abandonment; at least, his invisibility, may be near an end. While it is true that every level of American governance has ignored him or brushed him aside so far, a grass-roots movement–tiny in numbers yet explosive in its sudden presence and growth–has sprung up in his behalf.

On September 30, a Solano Community College student named Kacie Hill created a Facebook page, “Mark of Vacaville.” . By Friday afternoon, it had attracted 1,300 members. A young Vacaville man, Jaden Ghent, began printing T-shirts in various colors, with images of Mark and the text of his manifesto. A rally on his behalf is being planned for Sacramento, the state capital.

If the Mark Rippee story is in fact arriving, it will not be a moment too soon. He is 56 now, and obviously in terrible health. If he is not rescued from the streets soon, especially with winter approaching, his life may end soon.

I have been convinced for two years–since discovering his plight upon commencing this blog–that Mark’s saga is of national significance; that this tragic, deformed man might well serve as a living symbol of so much that is deformed in our systems of mental health care. In these two years I have contacted political figures (including the Solano County Board of Supervisors), media watchdogs, and mental health advocates on his behalf. The advocates have shown interest but none has had an idea for how to break through. The rest have remained stonily silent.

But last Wednesday, with one impassioned, eloquent outburst, Mark Rippee may have done the trick himself. However improbably, he has risen up from his tortured silence to declare himself a man. Whose home is the United States of America.

And people–ordinary grass-roots people, if not (yet) those who represent the United States of America–listened.

And the silent, suffering, frequently incoherent James Mark Rippee of Vacaville, California, may yet transcend his victimhood and become the standard-bearer of reclamation that we have all been looking for.

I will revisit Mark Rippee’s story next week.

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