SOMEBODY SAID he saw "Tico" at Broad and Olney with a lye-based hair remover smeared on his face and head.

Then, on Wednesday, someone spotted him outside the Gallery eating from a trash can. At least, it looked like Tico.

At a glance, he looks like a lot of the dusty wanderers who collect cans or break into cars or disturb our peace just by being there. Men like Altico Cooper, whose homelessness results from untreated mental illnesses, find themselves suspended between periods of life on the streets and enforced stays in homeless shelters, mental-health institutions and jail cells.

They are a subset of a subculture, shadow people whose irrational choice to live on the streets has swelled the city's homeless population and prison census to a point at which the mayor has been moved to intervene.

"We have souls and lives to save," Mayor Nutter said Wednesday as he unveiled an $8.3 million plan to provide an additional 700 housing units and beds for homeless people.

It's an ambitious plan. But it diverts hundreds of public-housing units from the 48,000 people who have languished on waiting lists for months.

It provides up to 150 units of housing with services for the chronically homeless. It funds 50 beds in treatment facilities for people with addiction and mental-health issues.

Cooper, 41, is paranoid/schizophrenic, bipolar, diabetic and loved dearly by family members who spend much of their time and energy either caring for or looking for him.

"I bought him a house so he wouldn't have to live on the street," said his mother, Willie Mae Cooper, a retired city worker on a fixed income. "I pay the mortgage. But I can't make him stay there.

"They called me from Gaudenzia House last night and said he was seen eating out of a trash can at the Gallery. I just broke down when I heard it.

"He's bipolar, but he won't stay on his medication. He's got a blood clot in his leg and his sugar was up to 1,000. Anything could happen to him."

She describes a son who was an excellent student until he suddenly veered off track at age 15. By the time he was diagnosed, he had become delusional and increasingly hostile. Then, he pushed her into a wall and she had to have him involuntarily committed.

"I'm mental too," said his older brother, Martez Cooper, 46, whose mental and physical ills mirror his brother's. "I know what it was like to be out there before I got the right medications.

"I didn't think I was homeless. But I was on the street or in and out of jail."

He has served time with dozens of men who are like he is and who wouldn't have been in jail if they had been properly medicated.

"That's what happens when they don't take their medications," he said. "I take 400 milligrams of Seroquel twice a day, I take Paxil three times a day and I'm down to one milligram of Alprazolam a day.

"I was taking Xanax, but they took that from us when these Hollywood stars started abusing it."

The medication has kept him stable for four years. He cares for himself and his daughter in the house their parents bought for him and his brother. He is, after years in limbo, a success story.

"But everybody is not stable enough to be on the street," he said. "Why did they have places like Byberry [state mental hospital] if they didn't have people who need them?"

It's a good question. But, until we get an answer, we'll be spending $110 a day to jail people who should be hospitalized, and untold millions to break the cycle of addiction for those who self-medicate.

For now, families like the Coopers, who have done all that we could ask of them, will sit by the phone and pray that something happens for their loved ones before anything happens to them. *

Send e-mail to smithel@phillynews.com or call 215-854-2512. For recent columns: http://go.philly.com/smith