Caring People Help Homeless Man Beat Life on the Street

by Lydia Bailey

    48 year-old Paul Hardin drove a Peterbilt, and worked in auto body and construction. Drinking related ulcers, and head and leg injuries from a motorcycle accident disabled him. “I died 3 times and each time God brought me back…I’m still trying to figure out why.” He has lived under a bridge in Cleveland for three years.

……Spring is here and this morning Paul Hardin has walked the four blocks from the bridge where he lives astride highways ramps to Trinity’s Cathedral Hall. His leg hurts, and he is with the perennial pack he carries. “Soon I’ll have my own apartment, and won’t have to carry this thing.” Paul looks down at his pack, his eyes brighten, and he imitates a high, little voice, “No, don’t leave me,” the pack says. Paul has a smile that’s always ready to break out.

    I hear about Paul’s recent turn of events, “A nurse from Care Alliance, she knew I was underneath that bridge, and she tried to get me out from under there several times. ‘[Paul], you look like you’re dying here, and I heard you’re not even going to church to eat or nothin’.’ I said, ‘We’ll I don’t feel good…my legs don’t want to work right.’…So I’m just lying there. And so she says, ‘You’re comin’ with me.’” Paul imitates her voice- full of conviction, and you feel his gratitude. “Yep…a nurse named Donna from Care Alliance, and a fella, Jim Schlecht… They put me in Joseph’s Home.” This is where Paul stayed from September of ’04 to February ’05.

     I recall the last time I saw Paul in September. With his usual greeting, “Top o’ the morning to you,” he said he couldn’t stay. Paul wanted to tell me he was going somewhere. He gave me a piece of paper on which he’d written his full, careful signature... something so formal about this…here was this individual’s own identity, I surmise later. Paul had written the address and phone of Joseph’s Home on the paper. “That’s where I’ll be…Call me.” No time for being hail and hearty, he was out the door. I kept the number, but didn’t call.

      Joseph’s Home is a shelter with 11 rooms down the block from Paul’s bridge. A former convent, it is run by the Sisters of Charity of St. Augustine for homeless men with medical problems that regular shelters can’t handle. “Our niche is home health care; we’re not a nursing home, not a hospital,” says the Director, Sister Joan Gallagher. Paul describes his six-month stay as “Quiet, really quiet… But I’m getting sick of that bridge sound…the sound of cars wrecking above me.” Sister Joan gets to the point, “[Paul] had some serious medical problems when he arrived. The alternate for him would have been the shelters or City Mission. Even then, the men have to leave around 7:00 AM… If it’s raining, you get pretty desperate. We see a lot of orthopedic problems, broken backs, necks…and cancer or pulmonary.”

     In this suffering is motivation for change, says Sister Joan. “We have a captive audience here,” she chuckles. “People who are ill are particularly vulnerable. They’re the ones most likely to change.”

     For Paul this meant enrolling in alcohol rehab at Rosary Hall inside St. Vincent Charity Hospital. “He knew his drinking was causing a lot of pain. The only way to overcome pain was to overcome addiction.”

     At Easter, Paul proudly showed me his diploma from Rosary Hall. “What am I going to do with this thing?” he asks.

“You hang it in your new apartment,” I say.

“Oh yeah, that’s right, I’ll have a wall.”

        Sister Joan Gallagher continues pragmatically: “[Paul] needed to make contacts with social security. Our social worker helped him. [Paul] needed medication, and he needed to keep medical appointments. Our nurse helped him here.”

        All this materialized for Paul, just before a Cleveland winter. “A clean room, a bed and a chair, a   washer and dryer, a shared dining room,” Paul tells me. And within this environment, Paul slowly made friends.

      “After a while [Paul] saw he didn’t need to be defensive,” says Sister Joan. “Kindness and gentleness are important ways to help somebody move into new spaces for themselves.”

       She describes how Paul chose to team-up with two students who were at Joseph’s Home, doing their fieldwork in Occupational Therapy. “They challenged [Paul]…laughed with him. They found [Paul] liked animals, so they visited a vets office. They got along very well.”

      Then in February, Paul left the structured environment of Joseph’s Home, choosing his old bridge life instead. The issues of sobriety, income, and housing must have come back in force. Paul left, however, knowing he had some very good friends. “He needs to know,” says Sister Joan, “that we’re here, if he needs us. For the next few years, at least, Joseph’s Home “has a grant that pays for a Coordinator of Continuing Care, to follow up with the gentlemen…to see their income is being maintained, and their sobriety, if that’s an issue.”

       Now Paul has big news, as I talk with him at Trinity. As of April Fool’s Day, 2005, he received notice of social security payments. They go all the way back to September 18, 1995 when he had his accident.

       “I can’t wait to get me an apartment.” Then he imitates the high little voice of his pack again, “Oh, no, I don’t want to go there.”

        Paul is choosing his apartment carefully, he tells me, away from his drinking buddies. The weather is b reaking, and Paul says, “You won’t recognize me in a week or so. I’m gonna be clean shaven.” He hides his hurt when he speaks of the little kid at Trinity who said, “Look daddy, there’s Santa Claus.”

      Two weeks later, having not seen Paul, I will talk with those Outreach workers from Care Alliance who first helped him move from his blankets under the bridge. “[Paul] looks good,” Jim Schlecht says

     “He’s got his own place… Donna saw him the other day.”

     My regards to you, Donna Kelly and Jim Schlecht. You specialize in finding those who don’t go to shelters, who are hard to find.

      Each Sunday there are 175 or so homeless individuals in Trinity’s Cathedral Hall. Within our neighborhood there are nine shelters. We are the only organization that serves homeless people on Sunday mornings in downtown Cleveland. Here is Trinity, Care Alliance, Joseph’s Home, and Rosary Hall…You piece together these services, and it was just enough, just in time for Paul Hardin.

      My concern is that Paul and many others in Cathedral Hall could easily slip through the cracks. There is something in Paul’s manner that I have found more than once in individuals who are homeless. It’s a quality approaching what Frederick Buechner describes in his book, ‘Telling Secrets.” Buechner writes about our “original, shimmering self,” that gets buried so deep that most of us end up hardly living out of it at all. “Life batters and shapes us in all sorts of ways before it’s done, but those original selves which we’re born with...echo with the holiness of their origin.”

      Maybe it’s Paul’s vulnerability that has caused this to surface, giving him an honesty and simplicity. It is there in his smile that is always ready to break out. And, as Buechner would say, it is a source of strength and healing that Paul and others like him can draw upon - even in the most unlikely circumstances.

     “How did you manage bridge life for three years?” I asked Paul earlier this spring.

      He tells me, simply, “Every day I get up in the morning, I say, ‘Good mornin’ Lord. What we going  through today? I do! I talk to Him. When I go to sleep at night, I say, “Good night, Lord. Watch over me. I don’t know what’s going on, but watch over me…I’ll see you in the mornin’. That’s the way you’re ‘sposed to do it, isn’t it?”

(Editor's Note: Paul Hardin's name has been changed to protect his anonymity.)

Copyright Homeless Grapevine and the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless, Cleveland Ohio October 2005, Issue 73.

    “How did you manage bridge life for three years?” I asked Paul earlier this spring.

     He tells me, simply, “Every day I get up in the morning, I say, ‘Good mornin’ Lord. What we going through today? I do! I talk to Him. When I go to sleep at night, I say, “Good night, Lord. Watch over me. I don’t know what’s going on, but watch over me…I’ll see you in the mornin’. That’s the way you’re ‘sposed to do it, isn’t it?”

(Editor's Note: Paul Hardin's name has been changed to protect his anonymity.)

Copyright Homeless Grapevine and the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless, Cleveland Ohio October 2005, Issue 73.