On a recent Thursday, what had begun in the morning as a light sawdusting of snow had developed, by midafternoon, into a steady, bone-chilling rain. The buildings in downtown Nashville traded occupants in spastic, grudging spurts, each unwilling pedestrian improvising his own way of fending off the sodden cold, holding newspapers above their heads or desperately clutching themselves about the waist, leaning toward their destinations with grim purpose. Passersby seemed to regard the chilling wetness invading their workday as an insult, an injustice. Unnoticed in the small, open park that sits across the street from the main doors of downtown’s Main Library, Lee Mitchell stood in the rain, a backpack slung over his shoulder, scanning the scurrying foot traffic for someone who might conceivably answer to the name Cueball.
Cueball was late. He’d called Mitchell from the Nashville Union Rescue Mission, a downtown shelter on Seventh Avenue South, looking for help in getting some form of identificationany form of identification, reallyso that he could find some work. They had arranged to meet in the park at 3 p.m. Forty-five inclement minutes later, Cueball had yet to show.
Mitchell, a quietly engaging man in his early 30s, by dress and demeanor looks more like a mountain bike-riding grad student than a pamphlet-toting social workerand that’s probably because that’s exactly what he was up until his graduation from Vanderbilt Divinity School last summer. But since July, Mitchell has worked for the Metro Development and Housing Agency (via a yearlong federal grant) as a homeless outreach worker. Or, to be more accurate, as the homeless outreach worker.
“As far as I know, I’m the only government-sponsored homeless advocate out here in the trenches,” Mitchell says. “My position is the only one in Nashville that involves actively seeking people out, looking for people where they live, so to speak, as opposed to waiting for people to come into a clinic looking for help. Most of these guys, for whatever reason, they’re not gonna go to a clinic.”
Indeed, the seemingly modest purpose in creating such a positionhelping people get from the street to rehab, for instance, or from rehab to temporary housing, or from temporary housing to something more permanentbelies the complexity of the job, a job whose one constant is impermanence. In practice, it’s a job that, in Mitchell’s hands anyway, improbably combines hopelessly abstract questions with a never-ending string of mundane chores. He muses on the morality of thrusting society’s values onto those who’ve chosen to forgo them even as he dials the number for, say, the Vine Hill Clinic before handing his cell phone over to a woman who appears to have been more than a little recalcitrant in refilling her “nerve pill” prescription. He questions, in a very broad, theoretical way, the philosophical soundness of outlawing prostitution while restricting the bus passes he carries to those who can present irrefutable proof of their destination’s legitimacy. (“That little trick is one of the many I’ve had to learn the hard way,” he says with a kind of rueful amusement. “Everything has a street value.”) If bus passes turn out to have a higher purpose in the moral universe, Mitchell, surely, will be the one to have made the discovery.
The people Mitchell helps, not surprisingly, have somewhat more pressing issues to deal with. In between bouts of precipitation, Mitchell notices a covey of smokers gathered at the steps of the Downtown Presbyterian Church. From a block away, it’s obvious they’d fall within his parametersan almost palpable inertia sets them firmly apart from the rest of the bustling pedestrians. Drawing nearer, Mitchell spots Soul Train, a man of indeterminate age in a pleatherish jacket and what appears to be a poplin cap, who greets the outreach worker in an impossible rasp. (His voice, the sonic equivalent of a crushed cigarette butt, goes a long way toward explaining how a countrified white man managed to cultivate the street name “Soul Train.”) Train, as he’s known to his friends, has an appointment for surgery the following morning.
“The doctor says I’m walking bone-on-bone,” Train comments in a gravelly drawl, pointing to his knees which, even in baggy jeans, slacken obscenely at the areas in question. Flanking Soul Train are Chip, who had arrived earlier in the morning from Springfield, Tenn., and John, a demurely feminine man with an eerie resemblance to Bob Dylan, and who, it’s clear, spends a dedicated chunk of his time with Soul Train. “Oh, not that one again,” John says, rolling his eyes in a combination of affection and mock exasperation as Soul Train begins a joke. “I’ve heard this one a million times.” After contributing a joke of his own, Mitchell asks Soul Train if there’s anything he can do to help him through the daunting bureaucratic red tape that is inevitably a part of an uninsured homeless man’s surgical procedure.
“You can come and visit me tomorrow afternoon,” Soul Train says.
“You want me to bring flowers and a box of candy?” Mitchell asks. John and Chip chuckle.
“Sure thing, darlin’,” Soul Train croaks with a smile.
“Train I can joke with a little bit, at least in the mood he’s in today,” Mitchell says later. “But I’ve seen him...well, like a lot of guys out here, Train’s got a bit of an impulse-control problem.” Like for many others on the street, though by no means all, prison looms as a formative experience in Soul Train’s life. In his case, he’s been inside far more than outside, so to speaka track record that at least partly explains his almost sitcommishly cozy relationship with John. (“Yeah, John’s his bitch,” Mitchell notes dryly.)
Of course, by the time people walk through the doors of clinics or rehab centers, the biggest battle has already been waged and won. It may seem obvious, but a clinic can only treat someone if that person is actually in the clinic. But it doesn’t take a great leap of logic to understand that some of the people who require the most help are the very ones who are least likely to seek it. Mitchell is trying to bridge that gap.
“Over and over again, it’s me saying, 'This is what I can do and this is what I can’t do,’ and it’s them testing me,” he says. “If I can at least show up and do what I said I was going to do, well, that’s probably a lot more than what most people have ever done for these guys.
“A lot of it is laying the groundwork, establishing trust,” he continues. “And that’s something that takes time and a lot of patience. I’ve had to work a little bit on the patience thing.”
Recalling his first several weeks on the job, Mitchell chuckles. “Oh, man, I was so green. Nobody would talk to me. Nobody. Until I met my mentor.” As it turns out, his mentor“The man who taught me everything I know,” Mitchell saysis a serene African American in his 50s, give or take a decade (chronic homelessness and exact birth dates rarely mix), named Albert.
“He came up and just asked me my name,” says Albert, entertained by the memory. “I told him, 'George Bush.’ ”
Under Albert’s tutelage, Mitchell slowly began to gain access to the fiercely guarded downtown homeless community. That access meant that he was able to help others.
For instance, eight months later, Ray, a dismayingly energetic man with the look of a zealous Marine, and one of the few to have physically confronted Mitchell in the beginning, is waiting patiently for him in front of the Burger King. After Mitchell stood his ground at their initial meeting, Ray has become, in the skewed world of the street, something of a model case for Mitchellwhich essentially means he’s shown a willingness to let Mitchell help him in certain small ways. For this meeting, the subject is a new pair of glasses paid for out of Mitchell’s discretionary funds. For his part, Ray did some research and found the most inexpensive metal-framed glasses in town“I don’t want none of them cheap-ass plastic frames, they always break,” Ray repeats, mantra-like, throughout the brief dialogue. The cheap metal-framed specs happen to be sold at a Wal-Mart vision center on the outskirts of the city. Mitchell gives him a bus pass and arranges to meet him at the store later in the day.
“Can you imagine not being able to get glasses, not being able to see?” Mitchell asks, expecting no answer.
Entering the harsh light of a Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce conference room from what has become a very gloomy afternoon, Mitchell squints slightly as he sidles over to the nearest available chair, a few minutes late for a Downtown Partnership meeting. The partnership, a loose collection of business owners and bar managers, has convened to discuss some shared issues and concerns, and to begin the process of addressing them in some kind of organized way. The first topic, unanimously chosen, is homelessness and panhandling.
“Would it help to put signs in our windows, 'Please don’t feed the homeless’ or whatever?” the manager of a late-night club asks without even the slightest hint of irony. Disturbingly few people laugh at the absurdity of the notion; it’s dismissed instead for its lack of potential effectiveness. Without a doubt, the people who run businesses downtown have legitimate concerns. Among the more florid of the many chronic problems is the common habit of combining enough backwash from discarded beer bottles to get drunka process that involves dismembering numberless cases of beer, bottle by bottle, that have been otherwise neatly discarded behind bars and nightclubs.
All of the issues the group addresses involve so-called “quality of life” crimes: public drunkenness, public urination, panhandling. Mitchell takes the opportunity to bring up one of his pet projects, Community Court, a relatively new process that has met with some success in other cities around the country. Briefly, it involves more community-service-type sentences and less revolving-door jail time, all administered from a downtown location created expressly for this purpose, which would expedite the entire process considerably. The gathering listens politely, and then turns to a Metro police officer in attendance.
“Well, what we’ve been doing is making sure, especially on these cold nights, that we check all the alleyways and doorways so we can get as many homeless as we can into the shelters,” the cop explains in a clipped, authoritative Tennessee drawl. “We don’t want people showing up to work in the morning to find a dead guy on their doorstep. Even if it is a homeless person.”
Later, standing in the rain waiting for Cueball, Mitchell grows contemplative.
“You know, there are a lot of similarities between dealing with the people on the street and dealing with the people in the suits,” he says, watching the street corners. “So many of the problems, the issues, are so obvious, so simple. It seems to be very difficult for people to understand that. I just...I guess I just try to take away as many obstacles as I can.”
Shambling up as an early, wet dusk begins to settle in, Cueball finally appears. He’d been lost.
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