In a major city such as Washington DC or New York, the homeless are everywhere, a grim reminder that the American Dream doesn’t always work out for everybody. I recently came across an article about one homeless man in Washington DC, a diagnosed schizophrenic in his late 60s named Alfred Postell, who had been accused of sleeping beside an office building. Standing before Judge Thomas Motley, Postell revealed that he was actually a lawyer, who had graduated from Harvard Law School in 1979, just like Motley. It was then that Motley recognized the man standing in front of him.
In a city like Washington DC, where there are thousands of homeless people, Postell might be one of the most academically distinguished. A closet in his elderly mother’s apartment is filled with various diplomas, awards and certificates that he’s earned over the years, a reminder of his previous life. He holds three degrees: one in economics, one in accounting and one in law. Growing up in a poor family, Postell worked through college until he passed the CPA exam and took a job as the audit manager at an accounting firm, where he made more than $50,000 a year, a huge amount of money in the 1970s. In his late 20s, he was accepted to Harvard Law School, where he earned a reputation as a soft-spoken, intelligent, well-dressed and charming. Many of his classmates have gone on to have successful careers, so the question arises: what happened to Postell? While there are some clues as to what happened to him post-law school, the true story of Postell’s descent into schizophrenia isn’t entire clear; there are plenty of inconsistencies and chronology hiccups.
After graduating Harvard, Postell took a job at the respected law firm Shaw Pittman Potts & Trowbridge, where he was the firm’s only black lawyer. Coworkers described him as cultured, intelligent and soft-spoken. A few years after he was hired, he was let go, although those who remember him from that time either couldn’t or wouldn’t say what happened. It’s possible that Postell was hiding his symptoms from schizophrenia, which often happens. Then there’s typically a snap, which psychologists refer to as a “psychotic break”, when a victim’s loosening grip on reality finally ruptures, often at an alarmingly fast rate.
One of Postell’s relatives recalls that he once lived an extremely luxurious life, until he just lost all of his material possessions. None of his relatives, not even his mother, know exactly what happened; according to his mother, a darkness once fell over him, as he kept talking about getting arrested and thought the police were after him. After a bad breakup, Postell had his “psychotic break”. His mother had him stay at a local pastor’s home, where he ended up staying for decades. During this time, Postell seems to have fallen off the map, with nothing but a handful of criminal charges indicating that he was even still around. He drifted, haunting the same storefronts, until he was finally recognized by his former classmate, Judge Motley.
The story of Alfred Postell, apart from being a sad tale about one man’s unsuccessful battle with schizophrenia, also poses as an interesting lesson about the homeless. It can be very easy to dehumanize a homeless man sitting on a side street panhandling, and forget that they’ve lived as vivid and complex a life as anybody and seen so much. Somebody like Alfred Postell reminds us of the diverse lives that the homeless have lived, and the struggles that they face every day.