Mr. Tommie pictured in the abandoned building he called home

Mr. Tommy pictured in the abandoned building he called home

Last week, Tommy went to see President Obama at his Town Hall meeting in New Orleans.  Less than 12 months ago, he was living in an un-gutted basement and was using a bucket as his toilet.  He was living there for two years until Shamus and I decided to knock on a ratty piece of comforter that doubled as his door.  Long story short, we all hit it off and he’s been successfully housed almost a year now despite his overwhelming physical and mental challenges.   Last Thursday, he sat 10 feet from the leader of the free world and a million miles from his personal story of homelessness. 

Shamus had a particularly trying time getting Tommy to the President’s audience.    For almost an hour and half, Tommy fiddled around his apartment affixing things to his walls and mopping an already clean floor.  He was adamant that he wanted to go see the president, but his agitation was obvious.  After much conjuring and an outright bribe of a pack of cigarettes, Tommy was on his way.  We managed to drop Tommy off to our co-worker Val, who was going to chaperone Tommy into the event.  Tommy now in the capable and patient hands of Valerie, Shamus decided we needed coffee.  I agreed.  Off we go.

Tommy and Martha Kegel, UNITY Executive Director, at President Obama's Town Hall meeting

Tommy and Martha Kegel, UNITY Executive Director, at President Obama's Town Hall meeting

What’s nice about Mr. Rohn’s little caffeine addiction is that it truly centers on coffee shops located in areas with high concentrations of cute college girls.  Apparently, this is where coffee tastes best and is freshest.  I agreed.  Off to Lakeview.  Why Lakeview?  It’s close to the University of New Orleans where our President was talking and our favorite client was now sitting at.

Lakeview was one of the hardest hit areas of New Orleans during Katrina.  It was also one of the richest and it’s looking pretty good these days.  Money, good insurance and neighborhood solidarity apparently has a way of spurring recovery.  It’s also kind of far off from the city core so that it doesn’t have what could only be called “urban problems.”   It is so recovered it is on Mr. Rohn’s radar for coffee shops.   It is not on Mr. Rohn’s radar for homelessness.

So with my ice coffee in hand and Shamus purposely sipping a large dark roast,  we took our seat at the nearest table.  Problem:  no cute college girls.  Solution: we leave.  My dedicated partner decided that our best bet was to “outreach” along the placid waters of Lake Pontratrain.  I agreed. 

A 45 minute discussion of homelessness was punctuated by the cool breezes rolling off the lake, the occasional fish jumping out of the water and the not infrequent passing of fellow New Orleanians also avoiding their work day responsibilities.   Good choice, Mr. Rohn.  Seriously….we were talking about homelessness.  We also talked about case management, access to care and how these hours our killing us.  All this was accomplished while satiating a moderate caffeine withdrawal and looking at lake front houses that list for a cool million each.  We were planning on hitting “our” neighborhoods tonight, not this neighborhood now. 

As we were leaving our little “outreach” perch, we spotted a gentleman sitting on a bench looking out at the water.  There were plastic bags scattered around, clothes hanging off the back and discarded food containers.  He looked a little ragged. 

Shamus asks rhetorically, “Do we stop?”

 I answered knowingly, “That’s what we do.” 

Along the shimmering banks of the beautiful Lake Pontratrain, within spitting distance of multi-million dollar homes with million dollar views, tucked within one of the richest neighborhoods in New Orleans, we met our newest client.  He’s schizophrenic.  He’s been living on the streets for years.  He actually lives outside of an abandoned bomb shelter.  His shirt is the paper variety, more associated with inappropriate discharges from hospitals than of perfect morning of breezes from the lake. 

The irony of this perfectly sick man, sitting in a most perfect place, while our president attempts to fix an imperfect healthcare system less than a mile away was not lost on me.  In fact, it wasn’t lost on our client.  He said had he watched as Air Force 1 flew over the lake to land.  I wonder if the President saw him.  I know he saw Tommy sitting less than 10 feet away and a million miles from his story of homelessness.  We’re still working on our new client.  Maybe someday, when he’s housed, he can meet the president.

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