Tea Time with Tagwa: Caring for mental health improves the commonwealth

Illustration by Karly Andersen

Tagwa Shammet, Opinions Editor

Tea timers, we can all agree that living in the City of Richmond comes with a number of undeniable privileges. We can shop in Short Pump, eat at some of the finest restaurants in Carytown and spend the night walking around downtown after a beautiful day on the James River. But during those adventures, we are likely to encounter those less fortunate than us living on the streets.

Some people aren’t as privileged as others. Throughout the city and our campus, no matter what street you’re on, homelessness is a visible reality. It’s become so normal to see people living on the streets that some of us tend to forget it’s even happening. As difficult as it is to say, it almost doesn’t even phase me anymore — that is, until last Saturday.

I work as a desk assistant for VCU Residential Life and Housing, and as I was walking to work, I saw an older woman who appeared to be homeless talking to herself and shivering in the cold. Seeing how I was already late to work, I hurriedly made my way inside. A few minutes later, the woman made her way inside as well, following a student who had door access. She laid on the lobby couch, and as she was completely harmless I found no point in telling her to leave. After an hour, however, she began crying and screaming. It was very obvious she was in distress. 

Having no experience in handling something like that, my coworker called our boss, who proceeded to tell us to call VCU Police. I immediately regretted calling. It wasn’t my boss’ fault at all — protocol is protocol. Nevertheless, that didn’t make me feel any better. Because we called, we forced her back into below-freezing temperatures when she was clearly unwell.

Due to her sudden outburst, it was quite easy to assume she was not alright, but there was nothing to be done. Most of my disappointment laid in the fact that we had to call the police instead of a mental health specialist. 

I understand how this situation was treated as a matter of student safety, but as a community, we need to be taking better care of those who lack the same resources we do. This woman was not the first nor the last person on the streets with similar issues. While VCU Police successfully and calmly removed the woman, it doesn’t negate the fact that she appeared to need more consistent help. 

Mental health is a serious issue, but it’s often overlooked and considered a privilege only accessible to select groups of people. In reality, it’s a necessity that must become more accessible to all, especially those experiencing homelessness.

Instead of sending law enforcement — which is often surrounded by a cloud of violence and tension — we need to be bringing in people who know how to deal with mental health problems. Neglecting those who have already been forgotten by the system will make them feel more invisible. 

We might feel bad for people who don’t know where their next meal is coming from, but most of us attending this university will never truly know what that feels like. No matter how sympathetic we are, we will never be empathetic. And that’s the tea.

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