Helping a homeless, mentally ill woman in Chennai: A personal experience

M S Paoyaola, a committed second year student of social work at the Madras Christian College, came upon a homeless, mentally ill young woman near the streets of St Thomas Mount. Her experience thereafter says a lot about how we can become a more empathetic city in general.

“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter,” goes a famous quote by Martin Luther King, Jr.  The verse seems to have impacted M S Paoyaola, a 21-year-old social work student from Madras Christian College, who recently went all out to help a physically and mentally unwell woman on the streets, and came back with a rude awakening of realities on the ground in such situations.

On January 26th, around 6.30 pm, Paoyaola, a second year student and a resident of St Thomas Mount was passing by Morison Street in Alandur. Noticing a small crowd on one side of the road, she paused, only to see an unkempt young woman sitting outside a house. She had covered herself with layers of shabby T Shirts and a nightie. “I was told that she was in the middle of the road. As it was unsafe, a compassionate woman asked her to sit in front of her house and gave her water,” said Paoyaola, who had spoken to the locals.

M S Paoyaola, a second year social work student from Madras Christian College.

Paoyaola’s passion for social work and the education received at her college inspired her to reach out to this homeless woman. “That road is a hub for drunkards. I knew it’s not safe for her,” said Paoyaola. The woman was in her early 30s, unable to speak, but expressed a range of emotions such as aggression, fear and helplessness. She was neither reactive nor approachable.

That is when Paoyaola did something that most would hesitate to do. “I gave her a hug, despite people asking me not to touch her.  She trusted me and we started interacting through signs,” Paoyaola recalls.

By then, it was nineo’clock; the student sought help from her college senior Srinivasan, who works at the Madras Community College and is also a social worker. “We contacted a lot of organisations that purported to shelter homeless, mentally ill people. To our shock, none of these organisations who boast of selfless service at any cost and any hour, showed interest,” says Srinivasan.

“A few disconnected the call after we explained the situation while some asked us to admit her in Kilpauk Mental Hospital. They did not even guide us how to do it,” said Paoyaola.  The duo then took the woman to Paoyaola’s house, after the organisations gave them no hope.

Whenever the woman saw buses crossing by her side, she would start to weep and try to explain something through her actions.  “We could understand that someone she knew had died in an accident. She had no one to take care of her. She even tried to convey something akin to chopping or stoning and death through her actions,” say the social workers, who managed to make her smile eventually. Paoyaola’s family gave a warm welcome to the homeless woman, as they mingled and played with her.

A phone call from the volunteers of Banyan, an organisation that provides shelter and medical aid to the mentally ill patients, finally brought hope and closure. “At midnight, the volunteers reached our place and took her to their shelter,” says Paoyaola.

However, Paoyaola has not shed all responsibility yet. She has been getting regular updates from Banyan about the health of the woman. “She is calm and co-operative. The woman is anaemic and is receiving treatment for both physical and mental illness,” said a volunteer from Banyan.

Through a C-section mark and some stammered Telugu words, professionals have been able to deduce that she is not beyond 30 years and hails from Andhra Pradesh. Banyan has assured Paoyaola that they will try to locate her family by lodging a police complaint.

Needed: A better society

Paoyaola says that social responsibility should be an innate quality in humans. “It is rare to see people coming forward to help the needy. Social workers can educate people to treat fellow citizens with respect and love, regardless of their class, condition or appearance. It is important to treat even mentally ill people as individuals, not patients or people to avoid,” says the student. If you spot such a person, give them water and food and if possible, report to the nearest police station.

She also stresses the importance of a more conducive ecosystem: “Organisations should fulfill their responsibility of helping out the needy. They should collaborate with civil society, students and police stations to strengthen their system and in turn help out the deserved.”

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