Part of our Goodwill series – Finding a Home for Morton
Perhaps you’ve been drawn to care for a homeless adult, teen or family who lives in your community? I’ve had the fortunate experience of befriending three homeless adults – one of which I’ll feature here.
When I launched a free senior program called, Club 60+, I met Morton. Morton was 65 then– a homeless senior citizen who lived outside the community center where Club 60+ met. Although I had seen him over the years, I had never taken the time to get to know him. I regret that choice now.
Morton was different. He didn’t panhandle. He walked. Everywhere. Weaving in and out of alleys, parking lots and park benches to collect his stockpile of ½ smoked cigarettes carelessly tossed on the ground. Morton had no money to buy cigarettes, so he made-do. It took me awhile before I could justify contributing to his habit. But whenever I imagined all the germs he was sharing with strangers, we’d head down to the local convenience store.
Morton never participate in the exercise classes. Instead, he watched from the doorway.
When I found his brother, I learned that as a young adult in his 20s, Morton began experiencing mental health issues and was diagnosed with schizophrenia. He didn’t trust doctors or medicine and so he lived with his condition. His only job to date was the ice cream parlor in high school. Morton never had a girlfriend. He didn’t drink alcohol. He had no siblings or relatives within 500 miles.
But, despite being on his own, Morton would give you the shirt off his back. Literally. He’d offer you half of a sandwich that might be the only thing he ate that day. Or he would hand you a book that he had rescued from the dumpster that he thought you’d like. Kindness was his currency and it was priceless to experience.
However, receiving kindness was a different story. Despite stashing treats in his box or wrapping survival items as gifts, it was impossible to keep Morton clothed or covered. “Someone needed it more,” he’d say. Still, there was no one there to quiet his outbursts when the world slept and his mind churned.
Soon, I came to realize that a cigarette or two – any brand would do- became a suitable pacifier for a long, lonely, bone-chilling cold, and an insatiable hunger to escape life on the streets. That and a cup of coffee.
Morton had been homeless for about 10 years. His caregiving brother suffered a stroke and moved away to be closer to family. Morton chose to stay behind in the area where he grew up. After all, he buried his parents here. A lifetime of memories were made here. It was the only home Morton had ever known even if it would now have no walls.
Everyone knew Morton – from the merchants along the Boulevard to the library staff and the local cops on the beat. He’s quite a character – loud and brash at times, intelligent, comical, a voracious reader, independent thinker and minimalist. Morton never asked for a handout or hand up – content to accept his life as it was and make the best of it. And perhaps that is why he attracted the admiration of those who provided him food, clothing and comfort over the years.
In Dec. 2013, Morton confided in me that he had lost his social security two years earlier. That began an exhaustive effort to restore his financial well-being and his connection to his family. I recall when we first visited the Social Security office downtown, I made Morton promise to be on his best behavior. I held my breath as we walked past the security guard and took our seat in the waiting area. Morton talked a mile a minute. He went out for a cigarette. Came back in. Went out again. At one point, he stood up and suggested we go home. I replied “No, we’re not giving up. Sit down.” He practically sat in my lap but he never lost his cool. It was amazing. We got through our appointment. I was proud of him and me. It would be 17 months before we’d see the fruits of our labor. Morton refused to ever go back again.
Fortunately, we redheads are relentless. I contacted our local homeless resource center where Morton occasionally trekked 1.5 miles for a hot shower and breakfast but turned up nothing. His caseworker and her team couldn’t persuade Social Security or Vital Records to hand over information without Morton’s permission. Morton couldn’t discuss the matter without flying off the handle. He assumed the government had stolen his money. Finally, frustrated at the injustice of seeing my friend suffer in our system, I turned to our elected representative in Congress. I completed a form and spoke with her staffer who stepped in and up for ‘battle’. He won and Morton’s social security was reinstated in two months.
With money coming in again, I resumed my advocacy to secure a home for Morton before the long, hot summer arrived. Two months later, the director who oversaw Morton’s care, called me to say “Thank You” for my persistence and patience. She had pulled some strings to finally secure a beautiful new home for Morton! He would be moving in if all went well two days later. I couldn’t believe my ears. I cried tears of relief and gratitude.
I kept my fingers crossed that Morton would accept their offer to relocate indoors in a new apartment building in another neighborhood. It was a big step. He took it.
Today, Morton lives in a supervised setting where he can remain as long as he chooses. A portion of his social security check helps to pay for his new home where he is learning life skills to live independently and taking art classes.
I still look out for him each time I pass by his old spot between the bushes. I smile because there’s a nice clean space that marks where Morton used to live.
Thanks to Morton and my other two charges, I discovered that the homeless are not so unlike the rest of us. Many are educated, became unemployed and lost the roof over their head. It’s next to impossible to embrace the structure of daily life when your existence becomes totally unpredictable.
I won’t soon forget the many individuals I met through Morton. Their compassion, concern and friendship sustained his well-being over bitterly cold winters and sweltering summers and prevented him from becoming a statistic. He survived his ordeal to now enjoy a new chapter of his life in an enriching new home and he is in touch with his family again. Happy Holidays, Everyone. Maybe there really is a Santa Clause.