For the last two years, I looked forward every morning to the walk west on Washington Street on the way to the Indiana Economic Development offices across the street from the Statehouse. The exercise was invigorating, and inevitably I encountered friends with whom I enjoyed brief conversations. It was fun to breathe in the sights and smells of a great city coming to life.
At Illinois Street I marked the progress of the Conrad Hotel, a Kite development that aspires to be Indiana's only five-star inn. It was blossoming in stark contrast to the scene that unfolded across the street. Resting on a concrete embankment were panhandlers jiggling change in bouncing cups like the organ grinder's monkey. Others, probably homeless, were propped up against the mall alongside personal belongings in sacks and boxes. The rich aroma of fresh urine was in the air.
This tableau was reminiscent of an experience I had while living in New York City after graduation from law school. I remember watching pedestrians, without hesitation, deftly sidestep an unconscious man on the sidewalk. I was a naÃ¯ve 24-year-old Hoosier who tried in vain to enlist help for someone who I thought was in need of medical attention. Now I get it.
In the '60s, Bowery bums would surround you begging for nickels and dimes. My New York cousins said it had been that way for 50 years. Not anymore. Mayor Giuliani cleaned up Dodge. Could we?
I engaged a few of the friendlier street denizens in respectful conversation. I often bought lunch but never filled the cup. According to Kimberly Wize, executive director of the Coalition for Homelessness Intervention and Prevention, "Giving someone money on the street does not help someone get off the street."
Then I met Lee Willie Nelson. A few years ago, Willie hopped a Greyhound from his hometown of Little Rock, where he worked a drilling machine in the installation of aluminum drains. He went north because "business was slower than molasses in the wintertime."
He had visited Indianapolis once before and found work in the kitchen of the Severin Hotel washing pots and pans. This time, when no position was available, Willie went "broke as a bubble" and began a life on the street, "living doorway to doorway." He eventually found sanctuary in a stairwell at Market Square Arena. When that nest imploded, Willie found a new spot to roost at a location he doesn't disclose.
Willie and I struck a bargain. Each day that he cleans up the Indianapolis Business Journal parking lot he may report to the receptionist and pick up money for lunch. Willie doesn't miss a day.
Willie did not appreciate having to gather empty gin bottles left by some of his contemporaries who lolled in front of his lot. He issued an ultimatum, "You ain't gonna do that foolin' around here." They're drinking somewhere else now. Willie is more effective than the city at abating this nuisance.
Last Christmas, IBJ employees gave Willie a sweater, socks, top coat and suitcase. He's part of our family. Every morning, Willie is as busy as an Arkansas honeybee in early spring. Willie panhandles in the afternoon, but he is proud of his morning job. Willie boasts, "You could throw a dime edgewise down the lot and see it a mile away it is so clean."
Willie has had hard times, but he says, "You gotta keep your chin up." There are others like Lee Willie Nelson on the street who are optimistic, willing to work and needing a chance. If you want to learn how private industry can assist the city and its street people, either access the Coalition for Homelessness at chipindy.org or contact Kimberly Wize at 630-0853.
If you spot Willie while walking down Washington Street, tell him his lot looks grand. He would appreciate it, and so would I.
Maurer is a shareholder in IBJ Media Corp., which owns Indianapolis Business Journal. To comment on this column, send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org go to IBJ Forum at www.ibj.com.