Protesting for Grover Perry

Activist Elizabeth Vega leaves a cardboard mock-up of a porta-potty at City Hall on Jan. 8 in protest of the city's homeless services. Grover Perry, a homeless man, died in a porta-potty in December. 

Grover Perry died in a port-a-potty on December 20 in downtown Saint Louis. I never met him, but I have known many people like him. I wonder what opportunities and resources Grover had during his life.

Grover may have grown up with adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), such as having a parent with mental health problems, a parent in jail, a parent with substance dependency issues, or being raised in a house without adequate food and clothing. Children with more ACEs and other traumas are more likely to have mental and physical health problems. They are more likely to drop out of high school, to be unemployed, and to live below the poverty level.

High ACEs impact one’s development, setting their life on a different trajectory. These traumas infect their everyday life, from hypervigilance and paranoia to difficulty trusting and developing relationships. This can impact their ability to function in the world and to utilize resources that may be available to them.

I wonder about Grover’s life on the street. Did he ever sleep at the New Life Evangelistic Center before the city closed it down? How many times did he sleep in a park or doorway, only to be awoken by an officer and ordered to move along?

It’s impossible to say. All we know is that Grover died homeless.

In a different outcome, he might have been a client sitting at a desk with me, sharing his life experiences, his hopes, and the challenges he had overcome. He might have arrived at our second appointment with a stack of completed housing applications. What would his income plan be? Would he feel able to work or prefer to focus on his health first?

How would Grover’s life be impacted if he was able to obtain supportive housing? I could have stopped by his apartment once a week to help him set up his med planner. Maybe he would manage his medication independently and just need rides to get groceries, or maybe he’d feel more comfortable having me sit in on his appointments with his doctors to help remember things he may otherwise forget. Perhaps, one day his landlord would call to let us know he was actively psychotic. I’d arrive just in time to watch police swarm in snapping orders that he didn’t understand, and punishing him for not complying with tasers and batons.

I wish I could have met Grover. I wish I could have heard his story and discovered his passions. I wish that people in power could have met Grover, or would be willing to meet people like him. The president, Congress, and the mayor of St. Louis would benefit from the experience - particularly in these times when we criminalize poverty and homelessness, cut supportive services while increasing spending on police and defense, in a city and a country with less and less affordable housing.

I agree with Rev. Martin Luther King: “Budgets are moral documents.” Not only budgets, but policies. In a time of divisiveness and economic inequality, what change could a little empathy make? What decisions could we make to insure that people like Grover Perry are protected, housed, supported, and given opportunities to thrive?

I would challenge those with political power, and those without, to think about what we can do to lift people out of poverty, increase access to affordable housing and medical care. What can be done to protect children in St. Louis from trauma and ACEs during their development? How else can we go about preventing the next person from dying alone, on the street, or in a port-a-potty?

Joel Sjerven, who works in psychiatric research at Washington University, has nearly a decade of experience in case management serving adults with severe and persistent mental illness, physical health conditions, those experiencing homelessness, and youth transitioning out of corrections.

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