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Giving Mentally Ill and the Homeless a Voice

Claire Burch moved to the Bay Area in 1978 from Brooklyn, which she tells me from her Craftsman home in Berkeley, California. Her home holds a cavern of video tapes that fills floor to ceiling bookshelves, hard to reach cubbies, and extra cupboards and storage space in the kitchen and back laundry room, making Burch’s home a living archive of Berkeley history. The city and university library have yet to do something with these tapes which hold twenty-five years of Christmas and Thanksgiving gatherings at People’s Park, (home of the historic “Bloody Thursday” and peace gatherings), free concerts by Country Joe McDonald, and countless hours of footage for the extensive cultural documentaries that she has made.

Burch’s body, as well as her interest in the complexities of life as an artist, reminds me of my favorite film character, Maude, from the seventies cult classic, Harold and Maude. After our meeting, I searched for one of my favorite Maude lines.

Maude: You see, Harold, I feel that much of the world’s sorrow comes from people who are this [she points to a daisy] yet allow themselves be treated as that [she gestures to a field of daises].

Burch could have easily said the above quote about any of her homeless friends, which she filmed endlessly for four years in order to make sense of their lives.

Burch, who has become legally blind from glaucoma, speaks about her recent documentary, California Chronicles of Medical Marijuana, from her production company, Art and Education Media. While friends and a college student assistant help edit the documentary in the other room, I ask what has been her favorite work to date, which she says is her work with the homeless. Her mission started on a personal note, when one of her adopted daughters who had substance abuse problems was diagnosed as schizophrenic.

“We’d try this treatment and that treatment, and Laurie (her daughter) would go from SRO (single room occupancy hotel) to different places,” Burch says, seated next to me in her dimly lit living room. “I’d get her an apartment, it would last three months. She would have an episode, friends would come, and they’d trash the place and get thrown out. Her friends were all in the same boat. None of them wanted to go to the shelters since many people are dumped at shelters from psych units and have nowhere to go. They are frightened and find the shelters dangerous. What was happening to her was happening to [other] young people.”

Many blame the amount of mentally ill homeless in California on former governor Ronald Reagan. In the 70s, Reagan started closing down mental hospitals, and then, in 1980, while Congress proposed new legislation (PL 96-398) called the Community Mental Health Systems Act, the newly elected President Reagan killed the bill. This halted the federal community mental health centers program, as well as its funding, and pushed mentally ill people onto the streets.

When Laurie took to the streets and later died in 1993, Burch was already deep into her work of turning her camera onto the homeless. She edited those four years of tape into three documentary films entitled, Street Survivors, More Street Survivors, and History of a Street Survivor. The films follow the lives of homeless men and woman in Oakland and Berkeley, while Burch asks them the very questions that go through our own minds when we refuse to spare our change and pass similar people on the streets. Pam, the main character of Burch’s films, oscillates between moments of clarity and public outbursts regarding her mental illness in their initial meeting.

“I happened to be there with the camera and turned to film her thinking she would object, but she really wanted to be documented,” Burch says.

Claire keeps her focus on Pam, who over time became a sort of surrogate daughter, a Laurie substitute, for Burch.

“I was just fascinated. I felt like I was maybe giving a kind of accurate observation of what happens to a very intelligent young woman who fell apart and became what everyone would call psychotic and landed in psych units and on the street. You see that sometimes.”

Street Survivors opens with Pam standing outside a pharmacy in downtown Berkeley as she speaks to the camera.

“Everyone who’s a character has gone through pain. I am so full of pain. I went to Cal. I went crazy at Cal, but it is genetic. My mother was manic-depressive, my brother is manic-depressive. I have to seek psychotherapy, which I do at Berkeley Mental Health. I have to put a lot of mental effort into keeping sane. I don’t drink. I don’t take drugs, nothing. No pot, no cocaine, no Lithium, no Thorazine. I have seizures. I don’t need drugs, do you?”

Through filming Pam, Burch was finally getting a chance to understand what her own daughter had struggled with during her lifetime, and what Burch captures in the first two films illustrates the very essence of what plagues those who are mentally ill. Through the honest feelings shared by these street survivors, we are able to understand and feel compassion for their plight.

Burch follows her scenes with the street survivors with scrolling text of her own thoughts, one reads:

“Some people come into this world more sensitive to pain and conflict stimuli than others. For whatever reason, genetic, environmental, pressures which can be dealt with by some, cause breakdowns in others.”

In More Street Survivors, Burch stretches beyond Pam into her homeless community, and interviews some men in a park.

“The hard things [of living on the street] get in the way of the importance of saying ‘I love you’,” one man who lives in an encampment explains. “And we need each other around as much as possible. [It’s] a lonely life.”

Another man explains the similarities between him and those of us who have homes, “I’m just like anybody else. I feel pain. I feel love, loneliness, despair, hungry, starving.”

I can’t help but marvel at the honesty from these men, how these thoughts mirror my own when I travel to other countries and see how much time people spend with each other, compared to the time we spend with one another in America. It makes me wonder why we box these people in and call them crazy.

A final man explains his frustration with those of us who can’t seem to understand the challenges of his life on the streets, and how many self-medicate with alcohol and drugs because of the very fact that they are homeless.

“When I was in junior high school sleeping in dumpsters, I stayed drunk. I’ve been drunk since then and I asked a commentator on a radio station, I said, ‘Are you going to sleep in a dumpster sober? Because if you are, I’ve got a Safeway dumpster for your ass right now.’ If they brought in shelters, the thing is that these people are not going to live together. You’ve got to know the chemistry of the people, man.”

“There’s no heroes. There’s no special ones. And I’m a drunk. Not that much different than our opposition. George Bush kills 200,000 two weeks ago, but we can’t throw no rocks or break no windows? And he was dropping bombs. He talks about how we have to be perfect and noble, but that’s bullshit.”

History of Street Survivors is where we finally get to meet Pam’s father and get a sense of the home that Pam grew up in—here Burch flips between her interviews with both Pam and her father.

“Her Dad turned up and I started filming him. Pam would say one thing, and her dad would say the opposite.” The film illustrates the contradictions that can exist when a house is filled with mental illness and past hurts.

One of the positive things that Burch did during the making of these films was to become instrumental in getting a California law passed that says psych units cannot force psychotropics, or antipsychotic drugs, onto patients unless there is a police action. Research found that when those suffering from mental illness were forced to take psychotropics, 15–20 percent using the drugs for several years developed Tardive Dyskinesia, a movement disorder that is a neurological side effect of antipsychotic medications that can be disabling and disfiguring. There are estimates that Tardive Dyskinesia affects around one million Americans.

“Now they have to say, ‘You don’t have to take this if unless you want to,’” Burch says while her small frame lifts as she speaks about her efforts. “Although they still get around this by saying, ‘If you don’t take this we’re going to put a hold on you.’ They have a whole set of tactics still to force the psychotropics [onto the patient].”

Burch has become a hero among those in her community who are committed to social justice. She has floated with her social security check, her film screenings are always free, and while she still manages to do her good work, she could use more help.

“The grants have dried up. We haven’t gotten grants in years. We still haven’t encountered in the world that will bring us back what we’ve put out into the world.” Burch says that she needs a curator, someone to send out material since she can only read a few lines at a time. “I’m virtually illiterate now in terms of reading.”

When I ask Burch what she wants to do still, the most, because I can tell her spirit won’t allow her to quit, she goes back to her work with the homeless, which obviously has become her passion. She says it’s a film about the life stories of forty people who have been homeless and who are extremely interesting, either in art or writing. “[These are] people who are brilliant, but society castaways.”

I look forward to her next installment.

Photo of interview with Claire Burch, courtesy of Norm Rosenberger