Homeless Man's Surprise Inheritance Won't Keep Him Off the Streets

Jeanne Sager

Max MelitzerThey don't call them Cinderella stories for nothing. The other day, Max Melitzer was a homeless man living on the streets in Salt Lake City, Utah. Today, he's heir to a huge inheritance, left to Melitzer by a brother who died just recently of cancer. Sounds like a rags to riches fairy tale to me. But before you drag out the box of tissues and start carrying on about Melitzer's good fortune at inheriting a fortune, can we step back and look at the markers of a really good fairy tale?

That "happily ever after" is just make believe, tacked on to every story to make it sound good. Max Melitzer isn't Cinderella. He's a real person. And in real life, people pushing grocery carts filled with everything they own don't suddenly get swept off the street overnight, reunited with the family who loves them, and prance happily off to New York to live, well, you know how they're supposed to live.

We want it to be Disney movie simple, like peasant boy Aladdin being swept from the streets and suddenly fitting into palace life. But what Melitzer's story gives America is a chance to look at the true plight of many of our homeless citizens. A man described as having un-specified "emotional issues," when family reached out before, Melitzer rebuffed them. He stopped correspondence in September 2010. They had no way to reach him, and when his brother died, they had to hire a private investigator to track him down.

And such it is with a whole sector of America's homeless. They aren't people forgotten, abandoned. Some are, yes. Some are living in poverty with no one to help them. But the National Coalition for the Homeless estimates approximately 16 percent of the single adult homeless population "suffers from some form of severe and persistent mental illness." To put that in context, only 6 percent of the U.S. population suffers from a serious mental illness. They can't take care of themselves.

One of the top three causes of homelessness in some of the nation's most populated cities, mental illness is a cause that can bounce a person on and off the streets depending on their health and their access to care. So a person getting treatment may stay off the streets for awhile, only to lose health insurance or simply stop taking their medications and end up back out there pushing a cart.

Each year, there are 3.5 million people who experience homelessness, and it simply can't be said that every single one of them has no one who cares for them. Instead it's that situations are tough. That mental illness can steal a person away from a family, a person like Max Melitzer.

The story of Max Melitzer is heartwarming. His family has vowed to get him medical treatment, to care for him, and so far he's receptive. But this is no magic bullet. Max Melitzer needs more than a crown and some glass slippers to dress up his life. If his family wants to keep him off the streets, they need to address what put him there in the first place. That's how we fix homelessness in America. It isn't just about money, folks. 

Have you had any experience with the homeless community?

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