Continuation of client profiles for a collaborative book on city planning.
CLIENT PROFILE: Melvin
When homeless men say they've been on the streets since 1995, 99% of them weren't literally on a sidewalk watching Clinton argue what the word "is" is. They just needed a round number to fill in their homeless start date on medical assessments, a timeline that began when their mother died/wife left/prison term began and hash-marked by episodes of sleeping on couches, cars, and pay-by-week motels. Melvin was the exception.
Melvin had brain damage. Hit by a truck ages ago, he and his twenty cats holed up in a cozy green haven surrounded by concrete and meth: jail to the north, medical examiner to the east, shipping warehouses to the south, and I-20 over his head. His shirt jingled with harmonicas, and after we built him a Mad Housers shelter in 2013 he'd play the Peanuts theme song for my son. He was happy.
In 2019 my office manager moved up north and handed me a fat file on Melvin, along with a public defender's phone number (who for our purposes we'll name Salty Love), and asked that I arrange a meeting with both of them ASAP. The next week Salty Love pulled up to the Magic City strip club parking lot in a shiny white hatchback, where Melvin stood beside me a little ways off so the club owner wouldn't call the cops for loitering. Salty dressed sharp and looked tired. We talked shop for a few minutes, going over Melvin's housing prospects, and then she immediately snapped into a Low Country accent and began asking Melvin how he was holding up, pressing a McDonald's bag into his arms. She would continue to be his greatest ally when it came to pulling strings.
In the interim since 2013, Melvin had lost his shelter, plucked off the earth by a DOT truck crane with only five minutes warning, everything he owned--his clothes, his books, his cats--dropped into a 20-foot dumpster. He never got over it. After his mental health assessment (brain injury+PTSD) I asked him what he wanted and he replied, "I just want to be alone. I want to be able to take a bath and lock the door."
Single bedroom apartments are the holy grail of supportive housing, and no amount of Reality, the likelihood that he'd have a heart attack or get stabbed for his pocket change, could sway him from that hope. He turned down the SRO (single room occupancy, in this case a repurposed jail that smelled like bleach and didn't provide meals) four blocks from his camp, and then refused the substantially nicer SRO (polished oak floors, meals provided, rides to Wal-Mart on Saturday) a mile from his camp. He'd stand in the corner while I haggled with property managers, side-eyeing the other residents like they were possums and he was an unwrapped Twinkie.
I began attending system navigation meetings in person to see if I could get an apartment for him. System Nav meetings are essentially Poorhouse Auctions where the leader announces an available unit and all the case workers flap their hands to plead their client's case (she's blind! But not too blind! And she has income! But not too much income!). Technically you can attend the meetings via phone, but in the real world you have to pack a tupperware container of rice krispy treats, ply everyone with sugar, and zero in on an apartment offer the second it lands on the table.
Melvin refused it at first. The apartments were down by the Federal Penitentiary, where he'd grown up, and too far a bike ride from his cats. Dozens of heartfelt texts between me, Salty Love, and his pastor later, Melvin agreed to take a tour of the property, where I continually snuck him Halloween chocolates like my husband used to do when our son first learned to ski. Melvin didn't like the location? Candy. Too many crackhouses nearby? Candy. I can't bring my cats? Candy.
The social worker and I got into the apartment early to set up furniture, so that when Melvin turned the key he could sit on a sofa and finger the little soap dish by his bathroom sink. His new social worker said, "Whatever Melvin's dealing with, I've been there. Drugs, prison, depression, dead loved ones, ain't nothing they've seen that I haven't seen too. It's what makes me good at my job." Afterwards, after two hours of pretending to hate the place, Melvin waited until we were alone and gave me a rib-cracking hug.
I worry he'll try and leave but he called a month later, in his home, on his sofa, eating a bowl of corn flakes.