Driving through downtown Tulsa during an afternoon rainstorm, Noe Rodriguez parks his white SUV under an interstate overpass and watches in the rear-view mirror as a raggedly dressed man takes off in the opposite direction, briskly walking into the downpour and glancing over his shoulder to make sure Rodriguez isn’t following.
He gets that reaction a lot.
“They aren’t necessarily happy to see me,” Rodriguez shrugs nonchalantly. “They don’t trust me.”
But he’s not here to see the man anyway. Rodriguez has come looking for “Amanda,” a gaunt and frail-looking middle-aged woman who lives under a pile of blankets below the northwest corner of the Inner Dispersal Loop.
Rodriguez had talked to her the day before and promised to come find her again today. But she doesn’t seem to recognize him as he climbs out of his SUV and steps onto the sidewalk, where Amanda is sitting near a muddy puddle next to a giant concrete pillar.
“Do you remember me?” Rodriguez asks, but she only stares at him. “You said I could come back today and help you get a birth certificate. Remember?”
Working for the Mental Health Association in Tulsa, Rodriguez has recently begun doing full-time “outreach” — eight hours a day, 40 hours a week, searching the streets of Tulsa and offering to help find homes for chronically homeless individuals.
That process often begins with obtaining very basic personal documents. A birth certificate will help Amanda get an ID. And an ID will let her apply for subsidized housing. But first, she has to let Rodriguez help.
“Can I fill out this form for you?” he asks, squatting down with an iPad. “How do you spell your last name?”
The wind keeps blowing rain across his iPad screen. And to hear Amanda’s mumbled answer, Rodriguez has to lean in very close to her face. She’s wearing two hats and several layers of long-sleeve shirts and sitting under half a dozen filthy blankets and an old purple bathrobe, all of which smell like urine and sweat. But if it bothers Rodriguez, he doesn’t show it.
Fifteen minutes later, he has the information he needs to obtain a birth certificate and promises Amanda that he will check on her again tomorrow. But she lies down without saying “thank you” or even “goodbye.”
“I don’t expect any gratitude,” Rodriguez says, climbing back into the SUV. “My ‘why’ goes deeper than that.”
An ordained Baptist minister, Rodriguez worked as a pastor at downtown’s John 3:16 homeless shelter for eight years before moving to the Mental Health Association, where he worked as a case-manager supervisor for a couple of years. But his passion — his calling, as Rodriguez calls it — was never behind a desk. He wanted to work on the streets, face to face with the homeless. So he began doing “homeless outreach” full-time in April.
Rodriguez’s father came back from Vietnam with a purple heart, silver and bronze stars, and post-traumatic stress disorder. Without psychiatric care, he tried to drown the symptoms with copious amounts of alcohol and lived alone for more than 20 years in a dilapidated house with no electricity, no heat and no running water.
“He was a tough old dude,” Rodriguez remembers. “There’s no way he was ever going to feel like he needed anybody. He wouldn’t let you carry him, if you know what I mean. He might walk alongside of you, if you let him have his dignity. But he wasn’t going to let you carry him. He was going to take care of himself.”
Finally, not long before he died in 2013, his father let Rodriguez help him navigate the bureaucracy at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, which provided him with housing, health care and — ultimately — a funeral. But the help came two decades too late.
Now his father is why Rodriguez does the work he does.
“I’m trying to do for other people,” he says, “what I wish somebody had done for my father.”
Ronald Simpson calls himself “Tramp.” Now 62, he’s been homeless off and on since he was 37.
“It’s like the way a red-headed guy might call himself Red,” he says. “You are what you are. And you might as well be able to laugh at yourself.”
Rodriguez found him at a makeshift camp north of downtown Tulsa, where Simpson was begging for cash from motorists at Peoria Avenue and U.S. 75. “Flying a sign,” as people call it — writing messages on scraps of cardboard for drivers to read as they wait at stoplights.
Simpson’s sign simply said “Please help.” And he’d collected enough spare change to get drunk and pass out next to a campfire.
Sleeping a little too close to the flames, he woke up with his right shoe on fire.
“I tried to get along on it for a few days,” Simpson says. But the pain became unbearable, and he ended up in an emergency room before being admitted to a midtown hospital for skin grafts.
Then somebody offered to help him obtain Social Security benefits but instead ran off with his brand-new Social Security debit card, pre-loaded with several months’ worth of payments.
By the time Rodriguez met him last summer, Simpson felt tired and depressed, resigned to dying on the streets.
“Nothing’s going to change,” Simpson told Rodriguez.
“I can help,” Rodriguez promised. “Are you ready to change?”
First, he re-applied for Simpson’s Social Security, then helped him sign up for a one-bedroom subsidized apartment at a south Tulsa complex owned and recently renovated by the Mental Health Association. Now Rodriguez is looking for a part-time job for Simpson.
“This guy has really been a big help,” Simpson says, sitting barefoot in a folding lawn chair in his freshly painted living room. “I was done. I was ready to change the way I was living. I just didn’t know how until he showed me.”
“You did it,” Rodriguez tells him. “I helped, but you did it. You’re the one who changed your life.”
Since starting his current job six months ago, Rodriguez has helped nine people find housing, a number that makes him beam with pride. But he keeps a list of 106 chronically homeless people still living on the streets in Tulsa.
Simpson, when Rodriguez found him, was camping with several other homeless men. And Rodriguez made the same offer to all of them: “Let me help you.”
Simpson was the only one who said yes. The others walked away or said “maybe later.”
“They don’t trust me,” Rodriguez says. “Maybe they think I want something from them. Maybe I want them to stop drinking. But lots of people have drinking problems and have their own homes. Why can’t these men have homes, too?”
Rodriguez and the Mental Health Association take a “housing first” approach. Find a home for the homeless, then work on addiction, mental health and finances — because the other problems become a lot more manageable once the first problem has been taken care of.
But he can’t force anyone to take his help.
Five minutes from Simpson’s apartment, Rodriguez finds a man sleeping near a wooden privacy fence behind a south Tulsa QuikTrip.
“Can I help you look for housing?” Rodriguez offers. But the man shakes his head and waves him off.
“I’ll come back,” Rodriguez promises. “You think about it, OK? And we’ll talk again.”