MARCH 17 – “So what do you do for a living?” Normal enough question, I get it often especially when wearing my caution-yellow T-shirt that glows in daylight and says UNITY OUTREACH. The only thing that is odd is that I’m having this conversation sometime after 3:00am in a bar the morning of St. Patrick’s Day. Yeah, I realize wearing work shirts to bars is not exactly smiled upon, but I got off my shift at 2:00am and it is St. Patrick’s Day.
“Homeless outreach, we get people out of abandoned buildings.” This response of mine is also typical, and usually it is followed by a comment indicating that I must be in need of psychiatric evaluation myself if I do this work voluntarily.
But here the conversation get’s weird.
“Hey man, I used to live in buildings like that myself when I got out of foster care. Let me tell you about a guy who was homeless when I was 10 years ago who is still on the streets…” He had my attention. “Yeah he’s this old guy with glasses who used to live in a building just off of Euterpe. I think his name is Simon. When I’m driving my cab I see him flying a sign [begging] down near Vic’s Kangaroo Cafe all the time. Think you can help him if I take you to him?”
Now I was rapt. I knew before he said anymore that the Simon he was talking about is the same guy we’d been trying to complete a PSH referal for earlier that day. Homeless since before Katrina was all we were sure of. This guy could date the homelessness to the year 2000. Information and clues like this don’t just happen every day for us. Call it the luck of the Irish in the wee hours of our most hallowed day.
MARCH 16 – Earlier the previous afternoon, we tracked down his former treating psychiatrist. The doc moved from a public mental health clinic to private practice. Can’t say I blame him. The clinics will grind you down and you can still do pro-bono work on the side. Mike managed to get through to the psychiatrist to get a copy of the client’s old diagnosis the best way we know how: I drove him to the office, he walked in, explained himself, and asked for the records with a signed release in hand. Funny how that always works better than phone calls and faxes.
MARCH 19 to 23 – Later that week, we submitted a completed referral packet to get Simon into a supportive housing apartment. The problem is we couldn’t find him when we were ready to introduce him to his housing search worker on March 23rd. So we did what we always do: search the online database for Orleans Parish Prison. Sure enough, he was arrested on the 22nd for the charge of “Begging.”
Allow me a short tirade. The act of begging, whether by spoken word, written signs on cardboard, or through gesticulation of the hands strikes me as a form of communication. As such, I believe it ought to be protected by the First Amendment. In fact, I’ve been told that the constitutionality of the charge went before some appellate court in Louisiana, and was deemed unconstitutional. I was told this by an attorney who used to be in charge of the case to have it overturned as unconstitutional. While I don’t perfectly understand the intricacies of the law and the process of having a law declared unconstitutional, the attorney told me that the City argued that the begging charge did not need to be removed from the books because it is no longer enforced; that is, if it isn’t being enforced, no one’s rights are violated. Funny, the same week that this man was arrested – the day before entering a housing program – two other clients (for a total of three) were arrested on this same charge.
MARCH 24 – Within a day, our pro bono attorney who handles these situations had me in front of the Judge whose court the case was before. As happens at times, in addition to being arrested for a new charge of begging, there was an outstanding warrant for Simon. The Judge, though not happy with Simon’s outstanding warrant or the new charge, was very understanding and clearly wanted to help the client. With the attorney’s help I explained that we had a chance to get Simon into a new housing program with supportive services that will hopefully keep him more stable and help him access the sorts of treatment that will help. The Judge agreed to release him 29 days later rather than making him serve the full 90 days. This is due to the fact that regulations governing this sort of housing would make the client ineligible if he stayed in jail longer than 30 days; a full 90 days would render him homeless the day he walked out of jail, while less than 30 meant he would cease being homeless. The Judge understood, and said to report back with the full plan just before the deadline.
APRIL 15 to 20 – Last week Thursday one of our wonderful housing search folks, Laurie, started hustling to find an apartment for a man who was in jail, meaning he couldn’t sign a lease and couldn’t meet the landlord. I was doubtful that it would happen in time and was starting to consider alternative options. This past Sunday at 1pm I received a text message from her saying she found a place, close to where the client previously indicated he would like to live, and that the lease and keys would be on my desk Monday. To say I now think she might be a miracle worker is an understatement; if you’d given me Jesus, Muhammad and the Dali Lama to work on the same task altogether I’d still have had my doubts.
Monday morning I let the attorney know what the situation was. He saw the Judge yesterday afternoon and informed me that Simon would be released on the Judge’s orders only to myself or Mike at 10am this morning.
APRIL 21 (TODAY) – At 9:55am Mike, Katy and I were at Orleans Parish Prison checking in and explaining ourselves. Never having been in jail, I’m probably one of the few people who likes going there if only because it is a leveling experience for everyone. Jail and its staff treat everyone pretty much the same: indifferently. People of all walks of life walk in and inquire about the whereabouts of the friend, family member or client they received a call from the night before requesting bail money. Everyone who approaches that window for information waits too long, and gets little information. The jokes abound: one guy walked in looking for his son stating “This is the best city in the world. This is the worst jail to be in. But at least the air conditioning works.” After I inquired, he admitted he’d been to a few jails, and he preferred the ones in Mississippi.
Past bad experiences aside, I do have to say the deputy at the counter was courteous. It may have helped that I walked in with a copy of the Judge’s orders for release in my hand and highlighted.
Simon was released to us at 11:30am. He had on mismatching shoes: a work boot on his left foot, a red and white basketball high-top torn open the entire width of the toe on the right.
“Simon, over here.” He looked confused, saw us and walked over. He asked us what happened, he thought he was supposed to be in jail for 90 days and it hadn’t quite been 30 yet.
“Your attorney talked to the judge with me. The Judge agreed to release you into a housing program hoping you don’t get arrested again. Sign this lease and we’ll go to your apartment.”
Simon is frighteningly bright. He may have a step or two on Mike and I (Katy’s smarter than us so I won’t comment on that). As we were waiting for the jail staff to retrieve his cane (he suffered a stroke 11 months ago) he explained how it all started, despondency and depression that set in after his wife and mother died in a 3 month period. He talked about frequent arrests for begging, obstructing a public walkway, drunk in public, trespassing, etc. He talked about how every time he was on the edge of having his life together, that revolving door of petty arrests and jail kept him on the street.
We took him to his apartment. He was dumbfounded to say the least. The first thing he did was go and use the toilet. He hadn’t had a working toilet and the privacy to use it in comfort in years. In his abandoned building he’d had a bucket. In jail he had the eyes of others.
Mike, Katy and I kept talking to him in the hour and a half we procured housing items for him about making sure he doesn’t get arrested again, especially for begging (constitutional or not, he’ll get picked up for it if the police see him doing it again). We made a list of things that need to be done for him to keep him stable and out of jail: getting his Social Security Retirement money reinstated, getting him into the mental health clinic to get his medications back on track, finding something for him to do during the day to occupy his mind, finding him a radio so he can listen to WWOZ in the comfort of his own air conditioned apartment.
To drive the point home Mike said in the semi-broken English he often drops into over a cigarette: “Man, you lucky to even be alive.”
Simon’s response: “Thank you. Muchas Gracias.”
You’re lucky to be alive. Thank you. I don’t know what it is about that statement and response that captures me. While the response doesn’t follow the initial statement perfectly, it somehow sums up this odyssey that, for me, starts over a Jameson backed up by a Guinness on St. Patrick’s Day. The same odyssey started for Simon a decade ago.
I don’t know who he was thanking or why. Was he thanking Mike for recognizing the fact? Maybe. Was he thanking a higher power for guiding him through that decade? Maybe. Hell, he could have just been thanking the Judge for seeing fit to release him early to housing rather than late to the street.
I don’t know who he was thanking. I’m just glad I got to see all of it. As I’ve stated before, this is the type of day that makes us feel privileged to work with people who are usually unseen, often judged to be of no social worth, and to be called crazy for doing it.