About half-an-hour ago, I helped a man get out of traffic, but inadvertently landed him in the back of a squad car in the process.
The man was harmless; black, thin, probably in his sixties given his snow-white hair and beard, missing most of his teeth. He was standing in the middle of the road, waving his hands in a non-aggressive manner. Yonge + Gerrard is not a good place to play traffic cop, so I decided to act.
I walked into the street and offered assistance - the man said he was hungry and was just looking for a hot meal. Promising to help him, I walked the fellow back to the sidewalk and asked if he had somewhere to go to or if I could help him find a food bank. His words were hard to make out, but he accepted my help while picking up a piece of gum from the cement to chew on.
Not knowing what else to do, I called 911, who sent a police car. As I got off the phone I noticed a Mission across the street; I told the man we could seek him some food there. He didn't want to go - he was scared of aggressive youth. I offered to go grab something and bring it back to him, touching his shoulder in a communicative gesture in the process. He recoiled at the contact, said he can't do that, meaning the touching. He offered a fist bump, as that was something he felt comfortable with.
The Mission provided me a bag of cookies, which I brought to the man - he wolfed them down, obviously famished. Then he thanked me. I told him if he stayed put, I would try to get him more food.
Then the police arrived. I introduced myself and pointed out the gentleman; they proceeded to politely but firmly handcuff the man and put him in the back of their car before driving off.
I know I did the right thing; the officers will have taken the man to a hospital where he can get some help. If I hadn't acted, there was a chance he could be hit by a distracted driver. But at the same time, I feel like I betrayed that man's trust. He wasn't causing anyone harm, he wasn't violent - he was just hungry and obviously suffering from some kind of mental health concern. Because of me, he had to suffer the fear and indignity of being handcuffed and put in the back of a squad car.
I've talked to a few professionals in the mental health world - they all say I did the right thing. I can't help feeling, though, that it shouldn't have to be that way. The system is designed to mitigate risk to EDPs (Emotionally Disturbed Persons), professionals like the police and society at large - and it works fairly well that way. But that fellow has had his humanity reduced, not just by whatever the condition is that isolates him from others but in how the system responds to it.
There has to be a better way; surely with all of our technology, understanding and experience, we can develop tools and practices that better preserve human dignity at the same time as providing people with the help and security they need.
That solution will be more than just some legislative tweaks, though - it requires culture change. What's bugging me most right at this moment is that, in all my efforts to help that man, it never occurred to me to ask his name.