Housing as Healthcare: Tony’s Story

By Elizabeth Langgle-Martin

Two years ago, I followed a foot path while doing some daytime outreach and found a lone, small tent and a gentle man named Tony. He was startled to see me, as he apparently had successfully managed to stay hidden and safe in his location, secluded enough to fly under the radar, but close enough to town to be able to do small jobs and scrape by. When he recalls that day, he says God sent me to him. I think it might have been the other way around.

Tony has lived in Nashville his whole life. He knows everyone, has rubbed elbows with countless big names in country music and befriended local business owners. He is friendly and polite and has spent far too many years outside through unforgivingly cold winters and exhaustingly hot summers. He says “yes ma’am” and loves banana pudding. He’s by far one of my favorite people in the world.

As we started to talk about housing options and the Section 8 process and began piecing together his necessary identification documents, I discovered that Tony was in constant pain from an old injury. A simple bicycle wreck had broken his collar bone and dislocated his shoulder. Due to his living situation and lack of insurance, his injuries were never properly addressed. His collarbone peaked out from his shoulder unnaturally and had calcified into an incorrect placement. His arm remained dislocated resulting in constant pain and frequent numbness that effected the use of his hand. He existed like this for years. In addition, a large cyst began to form near his spine, increasing his discomfort. He attempted to get more sustainable work tossing pies at a local pizza haunt but his injury prevented him from the lifting and standing and loading that was required so he resigned to working his small, infrequent jobs. When the woods that hosted his tiny tent were bulldozed he moved into a broken down van that a friendly neighbor allowed him to stay in through yet another frigid winter.

It became evident that the need for housing and the need for healthcare were both essential to Tony’s well being. He and I attended appointments at a free clinic where they ushered us to Meharry to apply for indigent care. We waited the long months until he could be seen for an intake appointment then several more to meet with an orthopedic specialist who conferred with a dermatologist. All the while we filled out Section 8 paperwork over countless cups of coffee, submitted his documents and crossed our fingers. The hospital was eager to schedule his surgery but the back of a broken down van is no place to recover from an extensive operation where even small movements would be excruciating. A group of service providers brainstormed around the table at a chronic care meeting and Tony was eventually matched with an unit through How’s Nashville and the generosity of Freeman and Webb. His voucher finally came and arrangements were made for a September move-in. We eagerly called the hospital and his surgery was scheduled. Tony’s relief was tangible.

Two days before his surgery, Tony received the keys to his new apartment. He and I washed and put away dishes in his new kitchen, he decided on a place for his trash can and I took snapshots of him on his new couch. He told me he was keeping a clean outfit for his upcoming operation.

Two days later I picked him up at 5:00 in the morning with his one clean outfit and helped him check in for his operation. The nurse handed him a hospital gown and I hugged him goodbye.

The next day Tony was discharged to his own apartment where he has been healing ever since. An amazing community of volunteers is showering him with homemade meals and my friend Pete helped set him up a TV so Tony can watch action movies while recovering. The property manager lends him DVDs when he finishes the previous stack. I call frequently to check in and he says “I’m at home,” and for a minute I feel hopeful.

For Tony, housing and health care came hand in hand. Healing from an extensive operation wouldn’t have been an option without housing. When I see Tony’s house keys, I see more than a roof over his head and a donated couch. I see the keys for physical healing from constant pain and the ability for Tony to use his arm again.

Housing. Healing. Hope.