This is the latest in a series of profiles of homeless persons in East County. If you know of a homeless individual willing to be interviewed, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Richard Darvas
March 16, 2010 (San Diego’s East County) -- Days before Bryan Brzezowski’s sixteenth birthday, he began to hear voices, he recalled in an interview with East County Magazine. Paranoid strangers warned of outward threats. “Oh, this person’s out to get you. That person just wants to kick your butt.”
At 25 years old, he was diagnosed as a mild schizophrenic. Shortly after he became homeless in September 2008, the depth of his mental illness manifested itself in loudening delusions, self-identity confusion and unprovoked irritation, he recalled.
According to Brzezowski, during a workup, his medical background and family history were examined at the county’s Southeast Mental Health Center. It was revealed that he suffers from hereditary schizophrenia with multiple personality disorder and depression.
Born in Buffalo, N.Y., in 1981, Brzezowski was six months old when his family relocated to San Diego. Raising two sons, his father scratched out a modest living but was plagued by bouts of epilepsy. Once a month he bought groceries for his family. With the remainder of a shoestring budget, he ordered a few pizzas. The family would eat pizza for dinner the next few days or so until it ran out. “That was his way of treating us, when we didn’t have a lot,” Bryan, the youngest son, reminisces.
After graduating from high school, he said, he briefly attended college. When his father died suddenly of a heart attack, Brzezowski dropped out to help his older brother support his mother. For 10 years he worked odd jobs in the fast food and retail industries. (Since age 16, he says he’s worked 28 jobs.) In 2008, his mother passed away. Following a car accident later that same year, his life fell apart.
According to Brzezowski, since he possessed no means of transportation, he walked a 30-mile roundtrip between work and his Jamul residence for every shift. On the way to work, he was struck by a car and injured his right knee. Unable to provide for himself, he depended on his roommate until his car blew a head gasket and became inoperable. Rent went unpaid and an eviction notice was issued. Brzezowski was given 24 hours to vacate the premises because he was not listed as the apartment’s leaseholder. That day, Sept. 7, 2008, was his first on the streets.
For the majority of the time spent homeless, Brzezowski says he has slept in a tent among the wild foothills of Rancho San Diego, in the shadow of Mount San Miguel. Thick underbrush and a treetop canopy provide partial protection from the elements and obscure his self-described “campsite” from the general public’s view. Sheriff’s Department personnel clear transients away from hiking trails near tributaries and banks of the Sweetwater River from time to time, but the homeless eventually return.
“We’re keeping the area that we stay in clean and free of trash,” explains Brzezowski. “It’s not a fire hazard either.” With three others, he says that he greets hikers and other passersby when spotted because he is conscious of their likely fear. Here, his earthly belongings include pillows, blankets, a few garments, DVDs (that were given to him), a cane and a pair of crutches.
Whenever he grows desperate, he rummages for food in the trash. “I go by the ‘STT mark’ of the homeless. If I find food, it’s sight, touch, texture.” This strategy was borrowed from a homeless friend. “If it looks good, touch it. If it feels good, take a bite. If the texture in your mouth just does not agree, spit it out and throw it away.”
Today, his 29th birthday is fast approaching. Despite a portly frame, he’s lost over 40 pounds since he began living as a homeless person. His footfall is decidedly heavy; a noticeable limp encumbers every step. In large part this is the byproduct of a second car accident.
Walking along a road’s shoulder, a Ford F-150 plowed over Brzezowski at about 50 mph last summer. He and a group of his fellow homeless were en route to obtain drinking water. The impact caused torn anterior and posterior ligaments in his left knee, and nearly severed his ear. To date he has not received any compensation for his injuries. In order to ever walk properly again, he will require surgery that he obviously cannot afford. His lawyer has not yet reached a settlement for damages. Liability may be at issue.
His brother is unwilling to take him in due to past differences, he said, adding that they have been estranged for several months. (Brezezowski's brother disputes this estrangement, and other points. See his comment below for details.)
After the initial diagnosis of mild schizophrenia, he took the antipsychotic drug Abilify into his late 20s. However, no matter the increase in dosage, it did little to ameliorate his condition. Until Brzezowski became homeless, this was the only drug regimen he was ever prescribed to address schizophrenia, he said.
An already untrustworthy mind worsened as months accumulated on the street. “I had spells where I wasn’t me; I was somebody else. And I wouldn’t respond if somebody were to call my name.” Sensing that his fantasies were beginning to outpace reality, he recycled cans until he had enough money for bus fare to visit the one of the county’s mental health centers. There he discovered his mother was previously treated for schizophrenia. Doctors ordered a cocktail of psychotropic drugs including haloperidol, benztropine, Celexa, Prozac and others. These helped, but he ran out after a few short months. The last time he took meds was February 2009.
“I self-medicate now,” he said. He claims that nicotine and caffeine help him manage schizophrenia’s symptoms, keeping the ghosts at bay. In addition to anecdotal evidence, research has widely supported this assertion—at least in terms of nicotine and its influence on temporary cognitive performance.
Brzezowski’s day-to-day routine can be summarized as follows. In the morning, he reads a few pages in a book before departing for a nearby grocery store. Behind a strip mall, he visits a recycling center where he cashes in bottles and cans he collected the previous night. Next stop is the public library. There he spends hours surfing the internet, interacting with online friends from London to Belgium. Once finished, he starts to wend his way back toward the campsite.
“If I have any money in my pocket from cashing in my recycling, I go inside Albertsons and I buy a pint of chocolate milk,” he explained. “I go to the discount bakery rack and I pretty much look for anything that looks like it might be good. Usually it’s anywhere between 99 cents to a $1.99.” Typically he buys a can of tuna, to which he adds mayonnaise from a packet taken from a fast food restaurant. On the rare occasion he can afford to splurge or there’s a sale, he gets a couple cans of Chef Boyardee.
After hearing rumors within the homeless community that one could receive government assistance due to mental illness, he sought out the opinion of an EMT employed by the Sheriff’s Department. This person confirmed that this was indeed a viable option. On his referral, Brzezowski returned to Southeast Mental Health Center, where he was originally diagnosed.
“They told me if I wanted a check, I’d have to get into an outpatient program,” he remembers. Subsequently, he was advised he needed authorization from a mental health care provider certified by San Diego County Health and Human Services Agency. A staff member suggested he enroll in a program offered at an El Cajon clinic.
“For like three months after that, every time I tried to…sign up for their outpatient program, the person who I was supposed to contact wasn’t there,” he complains. Frequently he phoned, but he insists each time he was transferred to voicemail because the person he needed to speak with was unavailable. “I’m calling from a pay phone. If I can’t talk to a person, in person or over the phone, why do I want to leave a message?” After a number of failed attempts, he quit altogether.
In terms of homeless outreach in East County, Brzezowski explains that help is scarce. A couple exceptions exist, however. Goodwill, for instance, lays unsold clothing on top of its dumpster for the benefit of the homeless. Crisis House, an El Cajon-based social services agency, furnishes Brzezowski with a full bag of groceries at least twice a year.
Remarkably, given his circumstances, Brzezowski is an articulate speaker. After a few minutes it becomes apparent to the listener that his mind functions swiftly. In fact, he has a penchant for inordinate specificity with dates, times and other numbers.
Free from the burden of his psychoses, he could potentially excel in any number of vocations.