My orientation lasted about thirty min.utes, the time it took us to drive from the clinic to the Samaritan House in Petworth, in Northeast. Mordecai handled the driving and the talking; I sat quietly, holding my briefcase, as nervous as any rookie about to be fed to the wolves. I wore jeans, a white shirt and tie, an old navy blazer, and on my feet I had wellworn Nike tennis shoes and white socks. I had stopped shaving. I was a street lawyer, and I could dress any way I wanted.
Mordecai, of course, had instantly noted the change in style when I walked into his office and announced I was ready for work. He didn't say anything, but his glance lingered on the Nikes. He had seen it all before--big-firm types coming down from the towers to spend a few hours with the poor. For some reason, they felt compelled to grow whiskers and wear denim.
"Your clientele will be a mixture of thirds," he said, driving badly with one hand, holding coffee with another, oblivious to any of the other vehicles crowded around us. "About a third are employed, a third are families with children, a third are mentally disabled, a third are veterans. And about a third of those eligible for low-income housing receive it. In the past fifteen years, two and a half million low-cost housing units have been eliminated, and the federal housing programs have been cut seventy percent. Small wonder people are living on the streets. Governments are balancing budgets on the backs of the poor."
The statistics flowed forth with no effort whatsoever. This was his life and his profession. As a lawyer trained to keep meticulous notes, I fought the compulsion to rip open my briefcase and begin scribbling. I just listened.
"These people have minimum-wage jobs, so private housing is not even considered. They don't even dream about it. And their earned income has not kept pace with housing costs. So they fall farther and farther behind, and at the same time assistance programs take more and more hits. Get this: Only fourteen percent of disabled homeless people receive disability benefits. Fourteen percent! You'll see a lot of these cases."
We squealed to a stop at a red light, his car partially blocking the intersection. Horns erupted all around us. I slid lower in the seat, waiting for another collision. Mordecai hadn't the slightest clue that his car was impeding rush-hour traffic. He stared blanldy ahead, in another world.
"The frightening part of homelessness is what you don't see on the street. About half of all poor people spend seventy percent of their income trying to keep the housing they have. HUD says they should spend a third. There are tens of thousands of people in this city who are clinging to their roofs; one missed paycheck, one unexpected hospital visit, one unseen emergency, and they lose their housing."
"Where do they go?"
"They rarely go straight to the shelters. At first, they'll go to their families, then friends. The strain is enormous because their families and friends also have subsidized housing, and their leases restrict the number of people who can live in one unit. They're forced to violate their leases, which can lead to eviction. They move around, sometimes they leave a kid with this sister and a kid with that friend. Things go from bad to worse. A lot of homeless people are afraid of the shelters, and they are desperate to avoid them."
He paused long enough to drink his coffee. "Why?" I asked.
"Not all shelters are good. There have been assaults, robberies, even rapes."
And this was where I was expected to spend the rest of my legal career. "I forgot my gun," I said.
"You'll be okay. There are hundreds of pro bono volunteers in this city. I've never heard of one getting hurt."
"That's good to hear." We were moving again, somewhat safer.
"About half of the people have some type of substance abuse problem, like your pal DeVon Hardy. It's very common."
"What can you do for them?"
"Not much, I'm afraid. There are a few programs left, but it's hard to find a bed. We were successful in placing Hardy in a recovery unit for veterans, but he walked away. The addict decides when he wants to get sober."
"What's the drug of choice?"
"Alcohol. It's the most affordable. A lot of crack because it's cheap too. You'll see everything, but the designer drugs are too expensive."
"What will my first five cases be?"
"Anxious, aren't you?"
"Yeah, and I don't have a clue."
"Relax. The work is not complicated; it takes patience. You'll see a person who's not getting benefits, probably food stamps. A divorce. Someone with a complaint against a landlord. An employment dispute. You're guaranteed a criminal case."
"What type of criminal case?"
"Small stuff. The trend in urban America is to criminalize homelessness. The big cities have passed all sorts of laws designed to persecute those who live on the streets. Can't beg, can't sleep on a bench, can't camp under a bridge, can't store personal items in a public park, can't sit on a sidewalk, can't eat in public. Many of these have been struck down by the courts. Abraham has done some beautiful work convincing federal judges that these bad laws infringe on First Amendment rights. So the cities selectively enforce general laws, such as loitering and public drunkenness. They target the homeless. Some guy with a nice suit gets drunk in a bar and pees in an alley, no big deal. A homeless guy pees in the same alley, and he's arrested for urinating in public. Sweeps are common."
"Yes. They'll target one area of the city, shovel up all the homeless, dump them somewhere else. Atlanta did it before the Olympics--couldn't have all those poor people begging and sleeping on park benches with the world watching--so they sent in the S.S. troops and eliminated the problem. Then the city bragged about how pretty everything looked."
"Where did they put them?"
"They damned sure didn't take them to shelters because they don't have any. They simply moved them around; dumped them in other parts of the city like manure." A quick sip of coffee as he adjusted the heater--no hands on the wheel for five seconds. "Remember, Michael, everybody has to be somewhere. These people have no alternatives. If you're hungry, you beg for food. If you're tired, then you sleep wherever you can find a spot. If you're homeless, you have to live somewhere."
"Do they arrest them?"
"Every day, and it's stupid public policy. Take a guy living on the streets, in and out of shelters, working somewhere for minimum wage, trying his best to step up and become self-sufficient. Then he gets arrested for sleeping under a bridge. He doesn't want to be sleeping under a bridge, but everybody's got to sleep somewhere. He's guilty because the city council, in its brilliance, has made it a crime to be homeless. He has to pay thirty bucks just to get out of jail, and another thirty for his fine. Sixty bucks out of a very shallow pocket. So the guy gets kicked down another notch. He's been arrested, humiliated, fined, punished, and he's supposed to see the error of his ways and go find a home. Get off the damned streets. It's happening in most of our cities."
"Wouldn't he be better off in jail?"
"Have you been to jail lately?"
"Don't go. Cops are not trained to deal with the homeless, especially the mentally ill and the addicts. The jails are overcrowded. The criminal justice system is a nightmare to begin with, and persecuting the homeless only clogs it more. And here's the asinine part: It costs twenty-five percent more per day to keep a person in jail than to provide shelter, food, transportation, and counseling services. These, of course, would have a long-term benefit. These, of course, would make more sense. Twenty-five percent. And that doesn't include the costs of arrests and processing. Most of the cities are broke anyway, especially D.C.--that's why they're closing shelters, remember--yet they waste money by making criminals out of the homeless."
"Seems ripe for litigation," I said, though he needed no prompting.
"We're suing like crazy. Advocates all over the country are attacking these laws. Damned cities are spending more on legal fees than on building shelters for the homeless. You gotta love this country. New York, richest city in the world, can't house its people, so they sleep on the streets and panhandle on Fifth Avenue, and this upsets the sensitive New Yorkers, so they elect Rudy WhatsHisFace who promises to clean up the streets, and he gets his blue ribbon city council to outlaw homelessness, just like that--can't beg, can't sit on the sidewalk, can't be homeless--and they cut budgets like hell, close shelters and cut assistance, and at the same time they spend a bloody fortune paying New York lawyers to defend them for trying to eliminate poor people."
"How bad is Washington?"
"Not as bad as New York, but not much better, I'm afraid." We were in a part of town I would not have driven through in broad daylight in an armored vehicle two weeks ago. The storefronts were laden with black iron bars; the apartment buildings were tall, lifeless structures with laundry hanging over the railings. Each was gray-bricked, each stamped with the architectural blandness of hurried federal money.
"Washington is a black city," he continued, "with a large welfare class. It attracts a lot of people who want change, a lot of activists and radicals. People like you."
"I'm hardly an activist or a radical."
"It's Monday morning. Think of where you've been every Monday morning for the past seven years."
"At my desk."
"A very nice desk."
"In your elegantly appointed office."
He offered me a large grin, and said, "You are now a radical."
And with that, orientation ended.
* * *
Ahead on the right was a group of heavily clad men, huddled over a portable butane burner on a street corner. We turned beside them, and parked at the curb. The building was once a department store, many years in the past. A hand-painted sign read: Samaritan House.
"It's a private shelter," Mordecai said. "Ninety beds, decent food, funded by a coalition of churches in Arlington. We've been coming here for six years."
A van from a food bank was parked by the door; volunteers unloaded boxes of vegetables and fruit. Mordecai spoke to an elderly gentleman who worked the door, and we were allowed inside.
"I'll give you a quick tour," Mordecai said. I stayed close to him as we walked through the main floor. It was a maze of short hallways, each lined with small square rooms made of unpainted Sheetrock. Each room had a door, with a lock. One was open. Mordecai looked inside and said, "Good morning."
A tiny man with wild eyes sat on the edge of a cot, looking at us but saying nothing. "This is a good room," Mordecai said to me. "It has privacy, a nice bed, room to store things, and electricity." He flipped a switch by the door and the bulb of a small lamp went out. The room was darker for a second, then he flipped the switch again. The wild eyes never moved.
There was no ceiling for the room; the aging panels of the old store were thirty feet above. "What about a bathroom?" I asked.
"They're in the back. Few shelters provide individual baths. Have a nice day," he said to the resident, who nodded.
Radios were on, some with music, some with news talk. People were moving about. It was Monday morning; they had jobs and places to be.
"Is it hard to get a room here?" I asked, certain of the answer.
"Nearly impossible. There's a waiting list a mile long, and the shelter can screen who gets in."
"How long do they stay here?"
"It varies. Three months is probably a good average. This is one of the nicer shelters, so they're safe here. As soon as they get stable, the shelter starts trying to relocate them into affordable housing."
He introduced me to a young woman in black combat boots who ran the place. "Our new lawyer," was my description. She welcomed me to the shelter. They talked about a client who'd disappeared, and I drifted along the hallway until I found the family section. I heard a baby cry and walked to an open door. The room was slightly larger, and divided into cubicles. A stout woman of no more than twenty-five was sitting in a chair, naked from the waist up, breast-feeding an infant, thoroughly unfazed by my gawking ten feet away. Two small children were tumbling over a bed. Rap came from a radio.
With her right hand, the woman cupped her unused breast and offered it to me. I bolted down the hall and found Mordecai.
Clients awaited us. Our office was in a comer of the dining hall, near the kitchen. Our desk was a folding table we borrowed from the cook. Mordecai unlocked a file cabinet in the corner, and we were in business. Six people sat in a row of chairs along the wall.
"Who's first?" he announced, and a woman came forward with her chair. She sat across from her lawyers, both ready with pen and legal pad, one a seasoned veteran of street law, the other clueless.
Her name was Waylene, age twenty-seven, two children, no husband. "Half will come from the shelter," Mordecai said to me as we took notes. "The other half come from the streets."
"We take anybody?"
"Anybody who's homeless."
Waylene's problem was not complicated. She had worked in a fast-food restaurant before quitting for some reason Mordecai deemed irrelevant, and she was owed her last two paychecks. Because she had no permanent address, the employer had sent the checks to the wrong place. The checks had disappeared; the employer was unconcerned.
"Where will you be staying next week?" Mordecai asked her.
She wasn't sure. Maybe here, maybe there. She was looking for a job, and if she found one, then other events might occur, and she could possibly move in with so and so. Or get a place of her own.
"I'll get your money, and I'll have the checks sent to my office." He handed her a business card. "Phone me at this number in a week." She took the card, thanked us, and hurried away. "Call the taco place, identify yourself as her attorney, be nice at first, then raise hell if they don't cooperate. If necessary, stop by and pick up the checks yourself."
I wrote down these instructions as if they were complicated. Waylene was owed two hundred ten dollars. The last case I worked on at Drake & Sweeney was an antitrust dispute with nine hundred million dollars at stake.
The second client was unable to articulate a specific legal problem. He just wanted to talk to someone. He was drunk or mentally ill, probably both, and Mordecai walked him to the kitchen and poured him coffee.
"Some of these poor folks can't resist getting in a line," he said.
Number three was a resident of the shelter, had been for two months, so the address challenge was simpler. She was fifty-eight, clean and neat, and the widow of a veteran. According to the stack of paperwork I rummaged through while my co-counsel talked to her, she was entitled to veteran's benefits. But the checks were being sent to a bank account in Maryland, one she could not access. She explained this. Her paperwork verified it. Mordecai said, "VA is a good agency. We'll get the checks sent here."
The line grew as we efficiently worked the clients. Mordecai had seen it all before: food stamps disrupted for lack of a permanent address; a landlord's refusal to refund a security deposit; unpaid child support; an arrest warrant for writing bad checks; a claim for Social Security disability benefits. After two hours and ten clients, I moved to the end of the table and began interviewing them myself. During my first full day as a poverty lawyer, I was on my own, taking notes and acting just as important as my co-counsel.
Marvis was my first solo client. He needed a divorce. So did I. After listening to his tale of sorrow, I felt like racing home to Claire and kissing her feet. Maryis' wife was a prostitute, who at one time had been a decent sort until she discovered crack. The crack led her to a pusher, then to a pimp, then to life on the streets. Along the way, she stole and sold everything they owned and racked up debts he got stuck with. He filed for bankruptcy. She took both kids and moved in with her pimp.
He had a few general questions about the mechanics of divorce, and since I knew only the basics I winged it as best I could. In the midst of my note-taking, I was struck by a vision of Claire sitting in her lawyer's fine office, at that very moment, finalizing plans to dissolve our union.
"How long will it take?" he asked, bringing me out of my brief daydream.
"Six months," I answered. "Do you think she will contest it?"
"What do you mean?"
"Will she agree to the divorce?"
"We ain't talked about it."
The woman had moved out a year earlier, and that sounded like a good case of abandonment to me. Throw in the adultery, and I figured the case was a cinch.
Marvis had been at the shelter for a week. He was clean, sober, and looking for work. I enjoyed the half hour I spent with him, and I vowed to get his divorce.
The morning passed quickly; my nervousness vanished. I was reaching out to help real people with real problems, little people with no other place to go for legal representation. They were intimidated not only by me but also by the vast world of laws and regulations and courts and bureaucracies. I learned to smile, and make them feel welcome. Some apologized for not being able to pay me. Money was not important, I told them. Money was not important.
At twelve, we surrendered our table so lunch could be served. The dining area was crowded; the soup was ready.
Since we were in the neighborhood, we stopped for soul food at the Florida Avenue Grill. Mine was the only white face in the crowded restaurant, but I was coming to terms with my whiteness. No one had tried to murder me yet. No one seemed to care.
* * *
Sofia found a phone that happened to be working. It was under a stack of files on the desk nearest the door. I thanked her, and retreated to the privacy of my office. I counted eight people sitting quietly and waiting for Sofia, the nonlawyer, to dispense advice. Mordecai suggested that I spend the afternoon working on the cases we had taken in during the morning at Samaritan. There was a total of nineteen. He also implied that I should work diligently so that I could help Sofia with the traffic.
If I thought the pace would be slower on the street, I was wrong. I was suddenly up to my ears with other people's problems. Fortunately, with my background as a self-absorbed workaholic, I was up to the task.
My first phone call, however, went to Drake & Sweeney. I asked for Hector Palma in real estate, and was put on hold. I hung up after five minutes, then called again. A secretary finally answered, then put me on hold again. The abrasive voice of Braden Chance was suddenly barking in my ear, "Can I help you?"
I swallowed hard, and said, "Yes, I was holding for Hector Palma." I tried to raise my voice and clip my words.
"Who is this?" he demanded.
"Rick Hamilton, an old friend from school."
"He doesn't work here anymore. Sorry." He hung up, and I stared at the phone. I thought about calling Polly, and asking her to check around, see what had happened to Hector. It wouldn't take her long. Or maybe Rudolph, or Barry Nuzzo, or my own favorite paralegal. Then I realized that they were no longer my friends. I was gone. I was off-limits. I was the enemy. I was trouble and the powers above had forbidden them to talk to me.
There were three Hector Palmas in the phone book. I was going to call them, but the phone lines were taken. The clinic had two lines, and four advocates.
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