First Stop on a Fairly Typical Night On the Van

I see the orange glow of a cigarette through the blackness of an open doorway.  I realize we’re being watched long before we meet whoever it is we’re looking for.  Instinctively, I shine the doorway with my flashlight and leave it on just long enough to discern the figure of a scrawny man sitting on a bed smoking. 

“Sorry for shining you.  You surprised me. I didn’t expect to find anyone here.”  This was my apology, thinking I may have temporarily blinded him.

“It’s okay, come in.”

We were at the squat earlier in the day, and were surprised it looked active.  The surprise was due to the fact that it is right across the street from a police station.  Most squatters express a fear of arrest, and so we expected abandoned buildings near police stations to be empty.  We were wrong.

We asked the man about whether having the police station across the street worried him. “No. They’d probably arrest us if they saw us, but I figure it is one of the safest places in the city.”

Us?  It turned out there was a woman in the bed next to him, trying to catch a few hours of sleep.  The two of them reported living in this spot for 7 or 8 months.   As is customary when we find two people in a building, we split them up and spoke to each individually; I spoke with the woman, Mike with the man.

After five minutes it was clear the man is looking out for her.  They’re in love.  She is sick.  She was in the middle of telling me about a car accident in 2002 that she says left her in a coma for four years when the noise outside grew too loud for my comfort.  I looked outside and saw the man gesticulating wildly while talking to Mike.  Mike was leaning against a mini-van and across the street, directly behind the minivan, was a police officer getting into a cruiser.  The minivan might have been blocking the officer’s view of them, but I can’t believe he wouldn’t have heard the man.  Suddenly I’m worried we’re about to see our clients go to jail, and hoping the officer will assume the noise is coming from around the corner on a busy street and not from the abandoned house right in front of him.

“Mike! Shut the fuck up! Cop 30 feet behind you!”  It came out in a hiss, a sort of yelled whisper.  This was actually my way of telling the man to be quiet, but you can’t tell a client to shut up, especially one this agitated.  Nor can you curse at a client, but you can get away with that just past midnight when you’re supposedly yelling at your parnter.  So I hoped the man would take the hint from my yelling to Mike.  “I know,” was all Mike said.  The man did not take the hint.

I returned inside, with Mike and the man following behind me a few minutes later.  The man relaxed a little and we opened case files on both clients, me in the front room with the woman on the bed, Mike and the man one room behind in what we think was formerly a kitchen.

She says she owns this house.  When I asked her how she ended up homeless, she says she also owns a house on the Westbank, but when she was released from the hospital following the coma, no one believed her that she owned it.  She also says that she made it into the fourth year of college and has a “Doctor’s degree.”  She says she was in the application process for “a crazy check” but was denied.  When I ask her why she was denied, she says she is not crazy.  When asked why she applied for the check if she wouldn’t qualify for it, she says a man who was tired of paying for her applied for it so he could stop paying for her.  She doesn’t know who that man was.  30 years old, reports four years in a coma, reports being a doctor after only four years of college, has applied for SSI/SSDI in the past, claims she owns two houses including this abandoned one, and says no one believes her that she owns the other house.  Something doesn’t add up, but I don’t think she’s intentionally misleading me.  I think I’m going to have to dig into her records and get her back to a doctor to find out what kind of treatment she needs.  But I think we can help her.  I think we can get her into housing with running water, fewer mosquitos, and with a legal status (tenant as opposed to squatter) that will help her avoid arrest.  And just maybe people will believe she belongs there unlike the people at the house she owns on the Westbank who left her homeless.

As we got back in the van I told Mike that she’s going to be an interesting client.  Mike’s response: “Him, too.” 


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1 Comment

  • Jason Delaney

    October 14, 2009 8:27 am

    I ran across your site and I am so glad I found it! I cannot believe that people are living in these conditions. It seems that there are too little resources allocated to helping those still suffering in New Orleans four years after Katrina. What can I do to help

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