The Homeless Guy Across the Hall
How much help is too much?
By Scott W. Webb
MARCH 23, 1998: Just last year, Michael Sedille was homeless--a casualty, an obscurity. For 36 months, when he couldn't find space in a homeless shelter, he had been bedding down under a bridge and in other camouflaged places around Nashville. Wherever he went, he packed a pistol for his own protection, wrapped in a plastic bag. Tempted to use it on himself at his worst moments, he eventually chucked it into the Cumberland River. He knew his own mind well enough to believe he'd follow through.
Since he's been off the streets, Michael's been in the news. His smiling face was on the front page of The Tennessean last April, and an account of his transition from homelessness is featured in the current issue of the Peabody Reflector, the alumni magazine published by Vanderbilt University's Peabody College. The cover photo shows Tipper Gore making a speech on the Vanderbilt campus.
Two weeks ago, Michael stood beside a podium just like the one where Gore delivered her address. Speaking to an audience of Vanderbilt students, he talked about what it's like to be homeless in Nashville.
By all appearances, things are looking up for Michael now. Like most other Americans, he sleeps in a bed, and he has distinguished himself with the simplest, most common achievements--stuff most of us take for granted, like getting the laundry done or showing up on time for appointments. He's in his mid-30s, and his eyes sparkle youthfully with a ready laugh. It's easy to find yourself wanting to help him.
Vanderbilt moved Michael Sedille across the hall from me about seven months ago. We occupy two top-floor apartments in an old house in the Belmont area. As an informal "experiment" being conducted by the university, he is part of a Peabody College study exploring what it takes to get, and keep, one homeless man off the streets. Because of my sheer proximity, I have become an unexpected variable of the experiment.
Initially, I was concerned that Michael would be a nuisance, visiting me frequently, wasting my time with his jabbering and such. But it hasn't been like that at all. We've chatted in our shared hallway for a few minutes each week. As he passes my door, he says, "See ya later, Scott," no doubt hearing me inside typing at my keyboard.
I've met the people connected to him through the Peabody program, and their goals seem more adoptive and redemptive than clinical. All women, they seem motherly and aunt-like. I've appreciated the fact that they leave me alone.
For many months Michael and I had respected each other's spaces. It wasn't my intention to get involved. But then, several weeks ago, things blew up.
It began as our doorbell rang one morning. Sharon, the Peabody professor who has helped Michael in a thousand ways, was waiting at the downstairs door. Her demeanor was somber; she asked me, "Have you seen Michael?"
"Come up and knock on his door," I suggested.
When she stepped inside, I saw a tear running down her cheek. "He didn't show up for work last night," she said. There was no answer at Michael's door.
After she left and I latched the lock behind her, Michael slowly opened his door. Eyeing me carefully, he grilled me about every detail of Sharon's visit. There wasn't much for me to tell, but he was eager to talk.
Obviously, Michael was distressed. He'd told The Tennessean that Sharon was the first person he met "who cared" about helping him. Her concern for him had reversed the falling-dominoes downslide of his life. They had met through a Methodist church, and she had invited him to participate in her class at Vanderbilt, where the discussion topic was "Health Service Delivery for Diverse Populations."
"I screwed up last night," Michael told me. "I got drunk and skipped out on work. Haven't you heard my phone ringing off the hook this morning?"
"I'm in deep shit this time," he said, grinning shyly. "I think it's time for me to disappear."
Michael had talked about "disappearing" before in times of stress. I'd always reminded him that, if he returned to the street, he wouldn't have a sofa and cable TV. But this time part of the problem was that he had just started a new job at St. Thomas Hospital, working the night shift--transporting dead bodies.
I tried to reassure him: "Wouldn't any normal person need to go on a good bender if they hauled bodies all night to the morgue?" I told him his flaking out on one night of work might be overlooked if he faced up to the situation. I liked the sound of that explanation. I told him, "You're entitled to flake, man." Then I asked him, "Have you ever gotten drunk and done this before?"
"Not since I've lived here," he said.
That was a solid seven months. Michael was performing better than the average person. He should be able to pull out of this blip on his record if he showed a little public repentance. I immediately offered to drive him to St. Thomas if he wanted to make amends.
He made a phone call, and we were on our way.
Michael squirmed nervously in his seat as we headed down West End. I offered to take him wherever he wanted to go, even to the bus station, if he changed his mind. But Michael accepted that he had to face the music.
"I'm gonna get the lecture of my life," he sighed, smiling with resignation. "Let's get it over with."
We pulled up to the front of the hospital. As he opened the car door, he announced, "I'm heading straight to the chapel to pray."
Later, I heard him coming home. As he trudged up the stairs, I poked my head out the door and asked, "So?"
"They chewed my ass out royally," Michael said, "but I've still got my job."
It dawned on me that I had let myself get caught up in the damn plot of Michael's life. I found myself wondering what had been keeping him on the straight and narrow, day in and day out. After all, the line between sanity and insanity--the impetus to freak out--is a delicate one.
Just the other day, Michael and I met on the stairs. Outside, the day was gloomy as hell, but he was wearing sunglasses. "What's with the shades?" I asked.
"I haven't slept in two days, and I don't want anybody to see the black circles under my eyes," he explained. Even though Michael had the job at St. Thomas, he had also kept an earlier job, working at Boston Market in Green Hills. There, he had worked his way up to a manager's position. After working all night at the hospital, he was heading straight to the restaurant.
It was adding up to a work week of more than 60 hours, and, to top it off, he was getting around town without a car. When he couldn't catch a bus or when he didn't have cab fare, he was hoofing it from one place to the other.
For Michael, getting around town also included mandatory church attendance--up to three times a week. Occasionally, he got a free ride with Sharon or her friend Kathy, who helped him get his job at St. Thomas.
"You mean you're being forced to attend church?" I asked him.
"If I don't go, I get a lecture from the powers," Michael said.
I asked about his official obligation to the university. He said he had given his verbal assent to Vanderbilt's list of rules.
"Including going to church?"
"No, but it's sort of been an unspoken requirement," he explained.
Because Sharon is in a leadership position at her church, Michael has high visibility, both there and at Vanderbilt, where she teaches. On Wednesday nights, he must catch the 3:45 p.m. bus at 21st Avenue and take a connecting bus from downtown to East Nashville if he's to arrive at the church by 5 p.m. He leaves church early so that he can catch the last bus from downtown that connects with the West End route. He arrives at work at 8 p.m., leaving two hours to kill before starting his shift at 10.
From Michael's perspective, maybe civilized comforts have diminishing returns. I can understand him asking, "Would my day appear better viewing it from a secure and isolated cubby under a bridge?" I can understand how there might be a moment or two of serious uncertainty about whether to run and hide.
Economics is one small aspect of homelessness. There are other subtle issues--like coping with stress and community. At the church, he says, he's become a sort of "elephant man" oddity. That wears hard on him--always being a living spectacle, the "homeless man" trying to make good. He gets lots of accolades at church, plenty of slaps on the back, but not a lot of honest friendship and connection.
"What's the deal there?" I wonder out loud.
"Have you seen many people from the church hanging out with me here?" he asks rhetorically.
After Michael's one-night bender, the pastor turned down his request for a counseling session, suggesting that he find a professional therapist, since he was "working and could afford it." Rather than feeling empowered, Michael felt slighted. When he told the pastor about his feelings, Michael says, she "threw him out of her office."
Michael says that, after The Tennessean published its story about him, an insider at the church told him some checks had arrived in the mail for him. Michael says he never received any money.
There are two sides to every story, and I'm only hearing one. What's more, the church has contributed significantly to Michael's transformation. But it's the puzzle pieces of Michael's picture that interest me.
He's enjoyed venting to me now and then. I'm wondering--how does he, a man who once dropped out, balance his "independence" against his newfound obligations? He pulls himself out of one kind of dependency only to discover himself stuck in a dependency of another sort.
He's off the street, but he now lives in a glass house, maneuvering his way through a political and social obstacle course to get what he wants and needs. I wonder if my own view of society's responsibility to the homeless has changed after living next door to one ex-homeless guy trying to make good.
Mainly, more questions arise. Can society really help another person improve by rearranging his circumstances and saddling him with hierarchy? Where do societal redemption and personal responsibility overlap in the process of making it possible for one man to stay off the streets? At what point does civic do-gooding overpower a person's good old-fashioned work ethic?
Through all his conflicts, Michael has had one constant buddy--Rob, a coworker at Boston Market. He came around a lot during the holidays, to hang with Michael and watch TV. At any rate, he was around a lot until the night of the "mistake."
Michael had been out partying with Rob on that fateful night. During the drive to St. Thomas the next evening, Michael told me, "Rob is out. He's not a good influence."
"Be careful about pinning the judgment on him," I countered.
Michael warned me that Rob might come around. If he became belligerent, I should not hesitate to phone the police.
I'd never seen Rob belligerent. "He'll be offended if you cut him off like that," I suggested. "You guys have been friends. What's he done...really?"
Later Michael delivered yet another new mandate about Rob: "Sharon said he's not allowed in my apartment. You've got to help get rid of him if you see him come around." Everybody in Michael's life seemed to be grasping for control.
Sure enough, a few nights later Rob rang the doorbell.
"What's up?" he asked me nervously. "Michael around?"
"He'd have come down if he were," I replied, glancing upstairs.
"Know where he is?" Rob asked.
We stood a moment in silence. "Hey, don't take any of this personally," I said.
"What?" he asked.
We heard the door open upstairs, and Michael suddenly stood looking down on us ominously. Like a coiled snake, he was poised at the top of the stairs, his hands formed into fists.
"Get up here," he spat out, glaring downward.
I wasn't sure whether he was speaking to me or Rob. Trudging up the stairs with Rob behind me, I considered whether to expect a shove. Brushing past him, I heard him whisper, "Stick around--I may need you."
I nodded, figuring he and Rob would work it out, but still, back in my apartment, I listened for the sound of banging heads. After about 10 minutes, Rob left peacefully.
The next day, in the hall, Michael told me, "If you see my keys lying by the door, you'll know I've disappeared."
All I could do was implore him, "Think of other options, man!"
But Michael had a new source of frustration. He had stopped by an ATM to get money from his account, and he couldn't access his account. After his binge, he'd signed control of his money over to Sharon and Kathy. Until that moment, standing in front of the bank machine, he hadn't calculated what impact that decision would have on his daily process of getting around. He didn't have a dollar on him. There was no question of his buying beer. He couldn't even afford bus fare.
I haven't spoken to Michael in about a week. Things have calmed down, and I know he hasn't disappeared. I hear him bumping around before he goes to sleep in the morning. The last thing he told me was that St. Thomas offers a great staff medical plan and that Kathy had taken him for a physical exam. The doctor had told him to get more rest.
I'm thinking now about Kathy, taking time from her own life to sit with Michael at the doctor's office. I'm thinking that it takes a lot of subtle assists to keep one man off the streets.
A man needs money, so he works like mad to get it. Then he needs R&R. He requires a bed and a kitchen and a washing machine and a dozen quarters to put in the washing machine. He needs faith and someone to lean on, someone to help him get across town and maybe watch TV with.
In Sharon's class at Vanderbilt, the first question asked by her students was a good one: "What does it take to get and keep one man off the streets?" Mostly, it's been answered. Clearing space for one homeless man requires tenacious tugging and pulling on the governmental and commercial sectors so that there will be enough room for one withered life to take root again.
But there's another concern that hasn't been fully addressed. Getting Michael off the streets has merely planted the seed. As any good gardener knows, it's dangerous to over-fertilize, over-water.
As I hear Michael passing in the hall, I sense his uncertainty. I hope he'll stay and fight for whatever it is that means the most to him.
He walks past my door saying, "See ya later, Scott," and it echoes in my head.
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