Michael Treadwell sat at the back of a courtroom in New Hampshire. He wore a windbreaker and khaki pants and leaned over his work boots with his elbows on his knees. At first it looked like he was chewing gum — a bold choice in a courtroom. But when he spoke it was clear: He wasn’t chewing gum, he was chewing his own gums. Michael doesn’t have any teeth.
Taxpayers in Hillsborough County, N.H., have spent $63,000 over the last six years keeping Treadwell in jail for little more than trespassing.
For years now, his life has looked like this: Trespass in an apartment building, spend 30 days in jail; bother restaurant customers, spend 42 days in jail; panhandle aggressively, spend 30 days in jail.
“When you live in a town like Nashua, there’s not a lot of homelessness there, and it kinda like focuses, puts you in the spotlight,” Treadwell says. “Especially if you drink alcohol and stuff.”
His charges all come from some combination of being homeless and getting drunk. Still, he says, jail is no worse than the streets.
“People kill homeless people, violence and everything else,” Treadwell says. “It can be a very dangerous life to live in. I don’t suggest jail as an alternative. Ain’t no kinda life.”
At the courthouse, he pleads guilty to public urination. He says he didn’t think life would be like this when he was younger.
Treadwell did do time for drug charges in the early ’90s. But for years, his ex-wife Sherri Treadwell says his life was on the right track. He traversed the country driving trucks — a job he loved. They had two daughters. She says she remembers the man she married.
“He’s the first one to give you the shirt off his back. If you need any help, he’s right there,” Sherri says. “And he has a really good sense of humor. When he has his teeth he has the biggest, brightest smile. It just covers him, covers his whole face.”
To Sherri, the drinking, the homelessness, the stints in jail — they’re all symptoms of his schizophrenia.
She says it started just a year or two into their marriage when Michael began acting strange.
“He would think there’s people listening in on our conversations,” Sherri says. “He would whisper to me in the car, ‘Shhh the car is bugged!’ No, the car’s not bugged. He wouldn’t talk on the phone.”
Sherri says Treadwell turned to alcohol to cope. They divorced in 2007.
A year after getting divorced, Michael walked into a church looking for bus money, and met Jarretta Copeland. Nine years later, Copeland knows him better than anyone — including how bad he can get when he drinks.
“He gets to yelling and screaming and hollering, and he’s talking and he’s cussing people out, swearing and carrying on and so forth and whatnot,” Copeland says. “It scares people because they don’t know what his intentions are.”
It was Copeland who got Treadwell diagnosed with schizophrenia. Over and over, she’s tried to get him into New Hampshire’s state mental hospital, and failed. Even a judge’s order couldn’t get him from jail to the hospital.
Instead, Treadwell continues to cycle from the streets to court, to jail and back again.
His story is not uncommon. Half of jail inmates nationwide have a combination of mental health and substance use problems, according to the Department of Justice.
Sherri says the system isn’t just failing people like Michael. It’s failing their families as well. Her daughters don’t have a dad around. She works two jobs and is rarely home. They miss him.
“His liver is gone now because of the alcoholism, so we know he’s not going to be around for too much longer. And this hurts the girls and I,” Sherri says. “And it hurts me more, because I know the system could have done something.”
Treadwell last said he wanted to go down to South Carolina, where he grew up, to get his trucking license back in order. Ultimately, he did make it to South Carolina — he ended up in a jail there.