Page 38 of The Street Lawyer

Author: John Grisham

"It's the worst shelter in the city. Those are old postal trailers the government gave to the District, which in turn had the brilliant idea of filling them with homeless. They're packed in those trailers like sardines in a can."

At Second and D, he pointed to a long, three-story building--home to thirteen hundred people.

* * *

The CCNV was founded in the early seventies by a group of war protestors who had assembled in Washington to torment the government. They lived together in a house in Northwest. During their protests around the Capitol, they met homeless veterans of Vietnam, and began taking them in. They moved to larger quarters, various places around the city, and their number grew. After the war, they turned their attention to the plight of the D.C. homeless. In the early eighties, an activist named Mitch Snyder appeared on the scene, and quickly became a passionate and noisy voice for street people.

CCNV found an abandoned junior college, one built with federal money and still owned by the government, and invaded it with six hundred squatters. It became their headquarters, and their home. Various efforts were made to displace them, all to no avail. In 1984, Snyder endured a fifty-one-day hunger strike to call attention to the neglect of the homeless. With his reelection a month away, President Reagan boldly announced his plans to turn the building into a model shelter for the homeless. Snyder ended his strike. Everyone was happy. After the election, Reagan reneged on his promise, and all sorts of nasty litigation ensued.

In 1989, the city built a shelter in Southeast, far away from downtown, and began planning the removal of the homeless from the CCNV. But the city found the homeless to be an ornery lot. They had no desire to leave. Snyder announced that they were boarding up windows and preparing for a siege. Rumors were rampant---eight hundred street people were in there; weapons were stockpiled; it would be a war.

The city backed away from its deadlines, and managed to make peace. The CCNV grew to thirteen hundred beds. Mitch Snyder committed suicide in 1990, and the city named a street after him.

It was almost eight-thirty when we arrived, time for the residents to leave. Many had jobs, most wanted to leave for the day. A hundred men loitered around the front entrance, smoking cigarettes and talking the happy talk of a cold morning after a warm night's rest.

Inside the door on the first level, Mordecai spoke to a supervisor in the "bubble." He signed his name and we walked across the lobby, weaving through and around a swarm of men leaving in a hurry. I tried hard not to notice my whiteness, but it was impossible. I was reasonably well dressed, with a jacket and tie. I had known affluence for my entire life, and I was adrift in a sea of black--young tough street men, most of whom had criminal records, few of whom had three dollars in their pockets. Surely one of them would break my neck and take my wallet. I avoided eye contact and frowned at the floor. We waited by the intake room.

"Weapons and drugs are automatic lifetime bans," Mordecai said, as we watched the men stream down the stairway. I felt somewhat safer.

"Do you ever get nervous in here?" I asked.

"You get used to it." Easy for him to say. He spoke the language.

On a clipboard next to the door was a sign-up sheet for the legal clinic. Mordecai took it and we studied the names of our clients. Thirteen so far. "A little below average," he said. While we waited for the key, he filled me in. "That's the post office over there. One of the frustrating parts of this work is keeping up with our clients. Addresses are slippery. The good shelters allow their people to send and receive mail." He pointed to another nearby door. "That's the clothes room. They take in between thirty and forty new people a week. The first step is a medical exam; tuberculosis is the current scare. Second step is a visit there for three sets of clothes--underwear, socks, everything. Once a month, a client can come back for another suit, so by the end of the year he has a decent wardrobe. This is not junk. They get more clothing donated than they can ever use."

"One year?"

"That's it. They boot them after one year, which at first may seem harsh. But it isn't. The goal is self-sufficiency. When a guy checks in, he knows he has twelve months to clean up, get sober, acquire some skills, and find a job. Most are gone in less than a year. A few would like to stay forever."

A man named Ernie arrived with an impressive ring of keys. He unlocked the door to the intake room, and disappeared. We set up our clinic, and were ready to dispense advice. Mordecai walked to the door with the clipboard, and called out the first name: "Luther Williams."

Luther barely fit through the door, and the chair popped as he fell into it across from us. He wore a green work uniform, white socks, and orange rubber shower sandals. He worked nights at a boiler room under the Pentagon. A girlfriend had moved out and taken everything, then run up bills. He lost his apartment, and was ashamed to be in the shelter. "I just need a break," he said, and I felt sorry for him.

He had a lot of bills. Credit agencies were hounding him. For the moment, he was hiding at CCNV.

"Let's do a bankruptcy," Mordecai said to me. I had no idea how to do a bankruptcy. I nodded with a frown. Luther seemed pleased. We filled out forms for twenty minutes, and he left a happy man.

The next client was Tommy, who slid gracefully into the room and extended a hand upon which the fingernails had been painted bright red. I shook it; Mordecai did not. Tommy was in drug rehab full-time--crack and heroin--and he owed back taxes. He had not filed a tax return for three years, and the IRS had suddenly' discovered his oversights. He also hadn't paid a couple of thousand in back child support. I was somewhat relieved to learn he was a father, of some sort. The rehab was intense--seven days a week--and prevented fulltime employment.

"You can't bankrupt the child support, nor the taxes," Mordecai said.

"Well, I can't work because of the rehab, and if I drop out of rehab then I'll get on drugs again. So if I can't work and can't go bankrupt, then what can I do?"

"Nothing. Don't worry about it until you finish rehab and get a job. Then call Michael Brock here."

Tommy smiled and winked at me, then floated out of the room.

"I think he likes you," Mordecai said.

Ernie brought another sign-up sheet with eleven names on it. There was a line outside the door. We embraced the strategy of separation; I went to the far end of the room, Mordecai stayed where he was, and we began interiewing clients two at a time.

The first one for me was a young man facing a drug charge. I wrote down everything so I could replay it to Mordecai at the clinic.

Next was a sight that shocked me: a white man, about forty, with no tattoos, facial scars, chipped teeth, earrings, bloodshot eyes, or red nose. His beard was a week old and his head had been shaved about a month earlier. When we shook hands I noticed his were soft and moist. Paul Pelham was his name, a three-month resident of the shelter. He had once been a doctor.

Drugs, divorce, bankruptcy, and the revocation of his license were all water under his bridge, recent memories but fading fast. He just wanted someone to talk to, preferably someone with a white face. Occasionally, he glanced fearfully down the table at Mordecai.

Pelham had been a prominent gynecologist in Scranton, Pennsylvania--big house, Mercedes, pretty wife, couple of kids. First he abused Valium, then got addicted to harder stuff. He also began sampling the delights of cocaine and the flesh of various nurses in his clinic. On the side, he was a real estate swinger with developments and lots of bank financing. Then he dropped a baby during a routine delivery. It died. Its father, a well-respected minister, witnessed the accident. The humiliation of a lawsuit, more drugs, more nurses, and everything collapsed. He caught herpes from a patient, gave it to his wife, she got everything and moved to Florida.