Sitting on a sidewalk outside one of our emergency shelters, I’m trying to complete an intake packet on a man who tells me he’s been hospitalized in at least 40 hospitals for bipolar and major depressive disorder, including many suicidal episodes. Tonight, though, he appears to be on an upswing, is upbeat and happy to answer my questions. Most of his life has been in New Orleans or neighboring cities; he evacuated to North Carolina following Hurricane Katrina and returned to New Orleans when his FEMA rent assistance was cutoff and he fell into homelessness.
Approximately 30 people are out here, and we have 10 outreach workers working a midnight shift to try and make sure everyone has been offered services and cases are opened.
The man two bedrolls down from where I’m sitting has been jawing at me for five minutes, telling me that I and my organization don’t do anything to help anyone, that he’s been in our system for years, and we haven’t helped him. I’ve explained I’ll speak with him next, and have since been trying to ignore him so that I can focus on the responses of the man I’m sitting with who cycles in and out of the psych ward every few months.
Apparently, ignoring the unhappy man is not the way to go. He stands up, walks over to me and is standing over me, asking me who I am to be out here at this time bothering people who are sleeping when (again) he says we don’t do anything for anyone anyway.
I don’t do well with people standing over me. I’ve got some fairly rigid personal space boundaries. I don’t like it when people physically try to intimidate me. I get an adrenaline rush, can feel the hair on the back of my neck standing up. I chose to remain sitting, because my expectation was that standing up would only serve to escalate the situation. I pointed out my supervisor, Ms. Patterson, on the other side of the lot and informed the man that he could complain to her if he did not like the way I do my job. He became louder and more agitated, but eventually sat down.
A third gentleman, this one sitting two bedrolls in the other direction (3 feet from me and 10 feet from the man who has been complaining at me), started verbally engaging the angry man. I returned to working on the first gentleman’s intake packet. Within 35 seconds, the third man has jumped up and is threatening to physically beat the man who’s been yelling. And based on physical stature and age, I’m pretty sure he could do it.
You can’t have a fight in a homeless-filled lot in down town New Orleans without giving the police reason to break up the site. You especially can’t have that fight when ten members of the outreach team are present, because it will make it look like we don’t know what we’re doing. Our credibility is our only claim to legitimacy; we have no legal right or authority that grants us any special status out here.
Before I realize it, I’m on my feet, standing between the two men, finger tips of one hand on the aggressor’s chest, spinning counter clockwise as I tell them both to back down, we don’t need any police attention. As I say this, a squad car turns the block, and I’m sure the lights are going to go off. I tell them both to look at the squad car, and ask if anyone wants to go to jail tonight. Fortunately, they both sit down before the lights shine or the siren blares.
The man who had been yelling at me for the last twenty-five minutes suddenly has a complete change in attitude. He thanks me repeatedly, acknowledging my intervention is the reason he didn’t receive at least one blow tonight. My guess is that given his behavior, which seems to indicate a serious mental health disorder and a general inability to get along with others, he’s probably had that experience before without anyone standing between he and the aggressor. He accepts my business card and agrees to come in and see me either in the morning or next week Monday. I doubt he will, but having him simply accept the card is progress from where we started.
I’m finally able to sit back down and continue the intake packet I’ve been working on, with interruptions, for twenty-five minutes. The first gentleman, the one with the bi-polar mood swings who I’m trying to help at the moment looks at me and laughs: “Hey man, don’t every try to break up a fight out here. I know you’re a big white boy, but don’t ever try to break up a fight out on these streets.”