You never know who you are going to meet on our streets.
We were standing outside the Royal Sonnesta on Bourbon Street for a fundraiser. Mike was smoking a cigarette and I was watching people passing by wearing Mardi Gras beads and drinking hurricanes. Tuesday night on Bourbon is still fun for a handful of locals and tourists.
As we were preparing to go back inside, we spotted a man who didn’t quite fit. He was in his sixties, wearing raggedy cutoff jean shorts, black shoes and a red striped polo-style shirt. He had white hair, three days of stubble and no teeth. His eyes were kind but distant.
“Hey! That’s C____!” Mike shouted. “Huh?” I said.
The man, it turns out, is one of ten people originally referred to our local Assertive Community Treatment team (ACT), a program that provides intensive supportive services and housing for the most chronically homeless individuals with mental illness. While this team provides badly needed services to a lot of difficult clients, they are not exactly experts at finding clients on the street and in abandoned buildings, so they frequently call us and provide a list of names hoping that we’ll know where the corresponding bodies are sleeping. We’d been asked about C___ multiple times.
He is an incredibly gregarious man with a diagnosis of schizophrenia. Apparently, he’d just been released from our local jail due to a “drunk in public” charge, but was happy that they had released him “with my crazy pills” – his term for depakote. He saw us and was looking for a beer… it seems a few nights in jail had his nerves on edge and he hoped an Abita might sooth them.
“C____, why don’t you roll with us tonight?” I asked. “Sure, I’ll roll with you guys.”
With that, we left the fundraiser, and the three of us got in the van to go do a little night outreach. The first stop was an abandoned building in the Hollygrove neighborhood where a man has been staying in three different houses on the same block since 2006.
On the way to Hollygrove, C___ raised his fist in the air and shouted: “Down with the petty bourgeoisie proletarian establishment!” I don’t remember my Marx well enough from undergrad, but I think at least one of those words is a little bit off. Nonetheless, I looked at Mike and said “Who’d have thought we’d be stuck at work when the revolution finally started? And here we are with its leader.”
Over the course of the night C___ recounted much of his life ranging from being drafted for the Vietnam war, to losing his brother in Houston, and a whole lot in between. We bought him McDonald’s hamburgers and a pack of cigarettes as tools for helping us establish trust and rapport. He promised that he’ll get in touch with us by the week’s end so that we can get him into the ACT office so that he can finally be placed into housing. As he left the van at the end of the shift he said “I sure am glad you guys found me, I don’t know what I’d have done if I wasn’t riding with you guys.”
I thought his final words interesting. We really didn’t do much for him outside of spend $2 on a cheeseburger, $4 on a pack of carcinogen, and sit around and listen to him for a few hours. I think it was the last part that really mattered to him. Just having someone to listen who didn’t blow him off as crazy made him feel human for the first time in a long time. How long I wondered? “I’ve been homeless on and off for about 22 years” C____ told us.
Anyway, as I was saying, you never know who you’re going to meet doing this job. You start at a benefit concert, and end up playing chauffer for a revolutionary leader just released from incarceration. But what is this revolution he was feeling as he raised his fist in the air? If simply listening to this man for a few hours is revolutionary, sign us up to listen all night long. If making a few concrete strides toward getting a U.S. Veteran into permanent housing for the first time in 22-years is indeed revolutionary, then we’ll shout: !Viva la Revolucion!
Revolution is a scary word for many. But if this work of treating the weakest and sickest among us as co-equal human beings – instead of as invisibles or nuisances – is indeed radical enough to warrant recognition as revolution, then it is the status quo that I worry about.