Health and Homelessness in Richmond, Virginia in the 1980s: Twenty-five years after leaving Richmond, I returned to the corner of Belvidere and Canal Streets where the Richmond Street Center had been. I searched for remains of my past work with Richmond’s outcasts, for my own past as a homeless outcast.
Standing on the street corner in Richmond, I noticed that the empty lot adjacent to the Street Center, the lot that had been a curtain of kudzu vines, trees and trash when I worked there, was gone. Traffic whizzed by. Belvidere remains a four-lane street, a major north south arterial through Richmond, with heavy car, and truck traffic. As I stood on the corner, staring at the specter of what had been the Street Center, it morphed into an emerald green mermaid: a large Starbucks stands there now. For all its stamped sameness, Starbucks signals comfort and home to me, since I found refuge in its watery birthplace of Seattle. The Starbucks is on the ground floor of a fancy brick three-story VCU student college residence hall where the Street Center had been.
Looking at the Starbucks, I had a vision of Bruce,* a former patient of mine who I’d always had a soft spot for. One of the River Rats, Bruce was white-haired, shrunken, and fond of wearing overalls. I’d often see him on the sidewalks near the Street Center, pushing a metal shopping cart full of aluminum cans and a large black plastic garbage bag, with a little white dog perched on top of the pile, wagging her tail. Bruce was a boisterous alcoholic, so usually the cart didn’t go in a straight line. He liked to give away presents he kept buried inside the garbage bag: packs of Marlboro cigarettes smuggled out of the Philip Morris plant by a friend of his who worked there, and packages of Twinkies and bright pink Sno Balls from the nearby Hostess factory. With his scraggly grey beard and the bag of presents, he was like a back-alley Santa. Bruce’s dream was to get a trailer of his own where he could be left alone to drink until he died.
Bruce had been one of the nicest of my regular patients at the clinic. Even when he got drunk he wasn’t mean: if anything, he got kinder and gentler. He didn’t have a chip on his shoulder, didn’t project an “I’m angry at the world for being given such a bum rap in life” attitude. Some of the clinic regulars at the Street Center were so weighed down by anger they staggered beneath it. Bruce shuffled. He was plain sweet.
As I stood on the street corner, looking at the Starbucks store and remembering Bruce, I became aware of a figure darting between cars, crossing the street toward me. It was Bruce, minus the overalls, garbage bag full of Twinkies, grocery cart, or his little white dog. But it was Bruce, still with the same happy demeanor and not looking twenty-five years older. I had been writing about him that morning, convinced he was dead, hoping he had gotten the trailer to live in before he died.
“Nurse Jo!” he yelled as he hopped up on the sidewalk beside me, grinning. On the street corner near us was a middle-aged white man holding a cardboard sign, with large hand-written words: “Homeless Veteran. Anything Helps.” I hadn’t noticed him before. He turned toward us. I saw it was James,* another former Street Center clinic patient of mine. He and Bruce were longtime friends, both were Viet Nam vets, and both were River Rats.
I talked with them for a while, imagining this was all part of a bad Southern Gothic version of a Woody Allen movie script. Bruce told me he had tried to drink himself to death but it hadn’t worked. The VA doctors were good and they were taking better care of him than they used to. He had a room in a house in Oregon Hill and had managed to stay there most of the time over the past ten years. He never got the trailer home he’d wished for. He’d cut back on his drinking and his blood pressure was better. The two men gleefully compared blood pressure readings, trying to impress me. Nurses are supposed to like that sort of thing. James had been living in Florida for a while and had just hitchhiked back to Richmond the day before. He was camping down by the river with buddies, with other modern-day River Rats.
“Mad Dog died last month, man. Did you hear Mad Dog died?” Bruce asked James. I didn’t know Mad Dog. While they were making plans to hook up later, I looked past them to the south. I could see cars speeding past us on the Downtown Expressway. Under the Belvidere Street Bridge that crosses the Expressway, I saw a group of four white young adults sleeping on old mattresses. At the top of the hillside above them there was a large hole in the fence, and beyond that was a boarded up house on the edge of what remained of Oregon Hill. The Hollywood Cemetery and Confederate shrines remain. Nothing had changed and everything had changed.
Take a look at the great (short) documentary video about a Seattle-based play Don Quixote and Sancho Panza: Homeless in Seattle, written by Rose Cano, a Spanish medical interpreter at Harborview Medical Center Emergency Department. The play is in response to a question she asked herself, “How do people maintain their dignity while being homeless?” As she explains in this video, one of her answers is: through the friendships and ‘street family’ relationships that develop for many people—including for people like Bruce.
* Names and other identifying details of former patients have been changed.