An Unexpected Coming Together to Find a Solution
(pt 2 of this story here)
The phone rang here late at night after we had just put up the first round of the honorary Arts & Culture District signs in downtown Clarksdale. It was our State Representative Orlando Paden. It was a courtesy call that someone had been caught trying to damage some of the signs around Red’s Lounge. “They were throwing logs at Big Jack Johnson,” Paden said. Who was throwing logs? “Dollar Bill,” was the answer.
Anger was the first thought, “who the hell does he think he is” and “doesn’t he understand what we’re tying to do” were echos in that synapse of fury. But, I knew better. The ravages of substance abuse, poverty, being alone in this world, and the painful mental illness that often comes from all of that, we’ve seen it before.
We have all experienced Dollar Bill out on our streets. Darting here, panhandling there, screaming, confronting, scary, and often so loud it overcomes our better angels. “Dollar Bill is scaring the tourists off, can’t anyone do anything about this,” is one lament.
Sometime later, Dollar Bill tore up the satellite dishes behind radio station WROX. He had been living in a storage shed nearby, and in a blackout drug fueled frenzy, the dishes were no match for Bill. This wasn’t just an isolated thunderclap, he KO’d other peoples property too. Dollar Bill’s storm of insanity was widespread; it’s getting worse, we were sure of it.
This time he’s really done it, though, and then suddenly Bill was off our streets, gone. With all the racket that went away with him, in short time it was almost like he was never there to many of us. All that seemed to matter was Bill’s gone, the tourists won’t be scared away. In all that quiet did we even dare to think about Bill anymore?
(Well, it turns out a few key people were much thinking about Dollar Bill. This has happened time after time after time. Bill gets crazy, they lock him up. But mental patients can’t be kept locked up. They let him out. And the Dollar Bill storms just keep coming back again. What are we going to do? This is what these key people were thinking about, you’ll know who they are in a moment, and their voices are in detail in part 2.)
Two days ago ClarksdaleNews was sitting in City Commissioner Willie Turner Jr.’s office at the Coahoma County jail. We were talking about the broken windows theory, neighborhood blight, disorder, and Turner’s passion to help Clarksdale move forward. Turner took a quick call, then “check this out”, he handed me his phone. On the screen was Turner and a man I didn’t immediately recognize. It was Dollar Bill! Healthier, with more weight, smiling; this was nothing like the last time any of us saw Bill on our streets. “Tell me all about this,” was my response.
“His name is William Michael Hunter,” was how it started. Commissioner Turner first met him almost 15 years ago at a Bible Study at the Oriental Rug Gallery. Michael was reading scripture, coherent, but still panhandling. Two days after that, Michael met Turner at a Sunday service at the City Auditorium. He gave Michael $3.00. “To this day, Michael remembers the scripture he was reading at that Bible study, and that $3.00,” Turner explained. Where is he now? “Fairland,” was the response. I thought he was in jail? “Fairland,” Turner repeated, “You wanna go see him?”
It was not odd to go The Fairland Treatment Center yesterday morning. I have first hand knowledge of recovery. I know what it is, how it works, what it isn’t. Commissioner Turner knows that about me, which is why we were on our way.
I learned that Michael’s slide into becoming panhandling Dollar Bill really took off with the passing of his mother, who used to live on Spruce Street, where she took care of her son. I also learned, though I had heard it before, that Dollar Bill has responded well to treatment, more than once. I also knew Michael’s repeated descent back into Dollar Bill was always because he stopped taking his meds, the very medication he needs for better mental health, and to stop those storms from a’coming. The only question in my mind was “how is it going to be different this time?” That was what I was going to Fairland to find out.
Walking into Fairland we met City Commissioner Ken Murphey (he has multiple interests here, one to assure safety of our citizens, our merchants and property, and another more humane). Then I learned that not only Murphey and Turner had an interest in Michael, but that City of Clarkdale Police Chief Sandra Williams, Coahoma County Sheriff Charles Jones and Region 1 Mental Health Center above Fairland do as well. All of these Clarksdale officials are involved, and Michael knows them; he now even hugs Chief Williams when he sees her, and he is aware that all of them are interested in Michael not becoming Dollar Bill again (but that alone is not enough to stop a depression from becoming a hurricane again).
Then I met Michael Hunter. Only the slightest of shake was there on his healthier frame. He’s calm, friendly, funny, and remorseful, smarter than one might expect, and he is not defensive about the havoc he has caused. Michael has been in Fairland treatment for over a month now. He got stabilized in the County lock-up for three weeks before that.
Through a stream of questions, Michael loves it there, but he wants to go home (though he doesn’t have one). “They gonna get me a place to live”, he said. He is in 12-step classes daily (though his mental condition likely requires medication to approach mental balance, rather than just sobriety alone). He has not started working the steps yet, but has someone he thinks of as a sponsor. “We got a group, we sit around, talk about our problem, I make them laugh,” Michael said. Both Ken Murphey and Willie Turner were in the room as our remarkable chat continued.
Michael talked about people caring about him. Who are some of them? Looking at both Ken and Willie, “you two,” Michael said, “and Chief Sandra and the Sheriff. The people here (meaning Fairland), they care. “I got people that care about me I didn’t know,” he said with genuine wonder and appreciation. We talked about his medication, and Michael is fully aware that not taking his medication is a root of his problem. “I get to thinking I feel good, I don’t need them meds no mo'”, Michael explained, “then I’m on ‘dem drugs again.” What drugs do you take (often referred to as “drug of choice”)? “Crack cocaine,” Michael said. Can you get crack in Clarksdale? “You sho’ can,” Michael said, “I first started smoking crack in St. Louis, crack ‘came my girlfriend over there.” That’s not a good girlfriend. “She ain’t no good, she tha’worse girlfriend ever”, Michael said looking at Murphey. Do you feel bad for causing such trouble, and tearing up people’s property? Michael paused, as if a recollection stream was trying to catch up with him, “I never thought Ken would ever forgive me.”
“Lemme show you something,” Michael said to me. He stood up, a hand went into his pocket, and out came a small crumpled up piece of yellow paper. He said “I look at this sometimes, I got it in the bank.” On the piece of paper was the number $1,182. What are you going to do with it? “Get me some new clothes when I get out,” he said, “I’m tired of these.”
More talk about his meds and the effect his treatment at Fairland is having on him continued. How are you going to be sure to not forget to take your meds? “Got to be somewhere to get help”, Michael said, obviously somewhat afraid of that reality. You’re really a good guy when you take your meds. Michael answered convincingly, “Good, great, outstanding, I want to be a good guy.”
After Michael left we talked with his treatment counselor, another person who really does care about Michael’s well being. How much longer will he be here? “30 days anyway” is what I thought I heard. The counselor said they are trying to find assisted living for Michael somewhere. How many target places are there for him? “There’s a few; we want one that is not in Clarksdale,” was the answer. Then we talked temptation would too great here for Michael. The drug dealers here all know Michael, he’s money to them, and they will have him off his meds with his old crack girlfriend again in no time. “We’re gonna find a place for him”, the counselor added. Can I quote you on that? “Yes”, is what he said.
Riding with Commissioner Turner on the way back from Fairland, we talked about addiction, hopelessness, the remarkable effect both Fairland and Judge Charles Webster’s drug court is having on helping people not go to jail that shouldn’t (some 75% of those in drug court do not reoffend) . That elevated into talking about the progressive and forward thinking law enforcement in our hometown (it is a surprise until you’re face to face with it), and how remarkable it is to see the City and County and Mental Health working so well together.
We talked about Michael having a serious disease; we know that. His story could end well, there is only the slightest of chance, but odds are it won’t end well at all for him. And this is not exactly about Michael; we have a nationwide opiate fueled drug crisis, and it is here in Clarksdale too. If Michael’s piece in this much bigger story ends well or not, though, the good story within this is he is already a part of our solution: effective, positive, progressive collaboration and work product has come together in Clarksdale over Michael, and if it doesn’t work for him, it may well for others.
Almost back in town now, Commissioner Turner and I were silently taking all this in. Touched by what we had just seen at Fairland, the elephant that was in the cab of Willie’s truck was whether Fairland and Region One can get extended living for Michael, and if Michael will be willing to take it. “In prayer to whatever higher power each of us has, help us find a place for him,” popped out of my mouth. Commissioner Turner, looked at me and said, “What you do for the least of them, you do it for me.”
(pt 2 of this story here)