Activism for the Homeless: The Legend of Mike Chase
A homeless man blessed me when I was 18 years old.
I was working at the Five Points MARTA station downtown, in the very center of Atlanta. The man approached me one day after work. He sported a tattered brown overcoat in the mid-July heat. His black sweater and jeans were frayed and faded by hardship and time. His shoes, barely whole, had undoubtedly seen miles and miles. He grinned as he approached me, teeth yellowing, face nicked and scarred from who know what tribulations. Long, dusty and frazzled locs sprouted from his scalp, upward and outward, like a palm tree. But his eyes. His eyes were agleam with a fresh spirit, and the excitement of seeing a familiar face. “Mike Chase!” he shouted.
Clearly he was mistaken. My name is not Mike or Chase. And has never been either.
“Mike Chase?! Mike Chase! How you doin’, man? How is your LIFE? It’s good to see you, man.”
I tried to protest as I was forced into his handshake and embrace. His presence did not alarm me so much as overwhelm me. He was so happy to see me. I could tell there would be no convincing him that I wasn’t who he thought I was. So I stayed quiet, mostly, and gave answers you would expect.
“I’m good, man. Thanks. How are you?”
“Good? Good ain’t good enough! We got to get you great Mike Chase. You’re going to be great.”
We talked for a couple minutes before he dashed off, still happy, shouting something or another in a singsong tone down the city streets. It was weeks before I saw him again.
Weeks later, at a stoplight somewhere near downtown Atlanta, I heard a muffled screaming through my blaring music and raised windows. I turned to my left to see the homeless man, across three lanes of traffic, calling out to me, jumping up and down feverishly. I rolled down the window, and as soon as we had a clearer look at each other, he bounded through the traffic up to my window. We exchanged similar pleasantries as before, and then he made a request.
“Mike Chase, do you have any change? Just enough for me to get something to eat.”
I had a removable console in my car in which I always deposited change from purchases. I never took anything out of it. I removed the entire console and handed it to him. Total, I estimate in between $15 and $20 were in there. When I handed him the console, he began to stir, then shake, and stomp his feet. I grew worried, and checked the traffic light to see if I’d be able to move forward soon. In the middle of his excitement, the man made another request.
“Mike Chase! Rub my head.”
I looked at his hair, at how much grime and dirt had caked up in it. The thought was unsavory.
“No, it’s okay, man. Just go get the food.”
“RUB IT!” he yelled, thrusting his head and part of his torso through my partially open window. The light was turning green. I quickly rubbed his head, just a few oscillations of the hand, as if saying, “good game, champ” to a younger sibling.
He removed himself from my car and hopped around to the curb. Then he said something that I won’t ever forget.
“Thank you, Mike Chase. You’re going to get everything you want in life. All of your dreams will come true.” I haven’t seen him since.
Now, I was always a simple person. Maybe I was always a superstitious person too. But I think about the things I wanted in life, and all my dreams really have been coming true. I’ve traveled the world. I’ve written a book. I’ve fallen in love. These were my dreams.
Sometimes I feel bad for the real Mike Chase. I wonder if I stole his blessing; if he is somewhere meeting with misfortune due to a case of mistaken identity. It may seem naive or frivolous, but that “guilt,” led me to actively pursue rights and benefits for homeless people. I was raised to always give to the less fortunate. But it wasn’t until my meeting with that man at Five Points that I took ownership of that cause, and started to integrate it into my life.
I coordinate at least two citywide “Essentials Drives” for the homeless every year, no matter what city I’m in. We’ve done coats and sleeping bags in the winter; clothes, sanitary products, and medicines other times. I volunteered at a shelter for years throughout college and graduate school. I partner with organizations that have a dedicated focus on truly helping the homeless population (and not simply appearing to do so), which is already marginalized and mistreated, in addition to being downtrodden. The more I learned, the more I committed. Most homeless folks are struggling with mental illness or addiction. Often, cities have ordinances that disproportionately affect low-income or homeless people of color, like no sleeping on park benches or loitering around railroads, and non-violent crimes such as marijuana possession. Atlanta city council just repealed 40/96 such ordinances.
Get involved politically or from a volunteering perspective locally. Partner with organizations that are built to address the issues of economic disparity and improve quality of life, not only for the homeless, but for everybody. And please, please, please treat everyone with respect. A homeless person is still a person. Sometimes they’re up against things we can hardly fathom. Besides, you never know who might have your blessing.