I had a client once who was being evicted from public housing. He’d had a rough hand dealt to him— mentally retarded, emotionally impaired, with paranoia, anxiety, depression, probably borderline personality. He was a mess, and his parents—get this—MOVED AWAY one day while he was at work at a local retailer like K-Mart, rounding up carts in the parking lot. So, he became homeless, because when he came home, his home was empty. For seven years. When he finally got beck into the social services system, they got him on the short list for disabled housing. The only problem? He was 27, decidedly, flamingly gay, and didn’t know how to behave himself. Which wouldn’t have been a problem if someone had met with him and seen that placing him on the same floor as elderly people in a mixed, elderly-handicapped apartment building just wasn’t going to work.
Predictably, eviction proceedings ensued. We begged and pleaded with him to go along with our reasonable accommodation plan—the one where he took his medication, saw his mental health counselors, stopped having parties after 11 pm on weekdays, and didn’t let his homeless boyfriend crash at his place every single night. He was the worst combination of impairments—not retarded enough to be docile, too paranoid and anxious to trust that we wouldn’t betray him, like his parents did. Understandable, but still—he was too smart, and too crazy in the wrong way, for his own good.
Long story short, after threatening to discharge him as a client to his own devices (and boy, did the carrot and stick approach nauseate me given his experience at his parents’ hands, but it was the only thing that worked…), he went along with the plan, and clearly, started getting better. We tried to positively reinforce how he was improving with the meds. We took the boyfriend aside, privately, and advised him that he’d lose the only warm place to crash besides shelters if he stayed more than two nights a week, and trust us, the manager of the building was watching, and we got the client ready for the pre-trial conference, where he needed to appear in order to convince the judge to continue the trial date so he could show the court what a good boy he was being.
We warned our client that he needed to not interrupt the judge, to be quiet and respectful, and to wear something nice to court, like a suit. When he said he didn’t have a suit, we told him to wear a nice collared shirt, and dress pants with shoes. He thought for a moment, then said, brightly, “OK!”
The next day, he was a little late meeting my clinic advisor and me at court, having gotten flustered by the whole thing. He made it in to the courtroom just as our case was being called. Wearing a button down, gold lame shirt, purple pants with bright blue stripes, and purple suede ankle boots. He was meek, he was sorry he was late, he sat quietly while I argued that the trial be continued, he told the judge about his life in his own words, and when he was done, the judge said “thank you. And sir, what nice colors to see on such a grey day.” You should have seen the client’s face light up. My embarrassment at his appearance melted as embarrassment at my elitism washed over me instead. But the client didn’t notice. He was glowing from the compliment.
After the client was allowed to go back behind the bar, we approached the sidebar the judge had called. As soon as the housing authority’s attorney arrived, along with the stenographer, the judge leaned over the bench, right in opposing counsel’s face, and said, very quietly, “It’s like you were trying to let him fail. Did anyone even read the application his social worker filled out, saying he’d benefit from a family housing placement? Or a veteran’s placement?” He then continued the trial with no firm date, and a status conference in six months to report on the progress of our reasonable accommodation proposal.
Outside, in the hallway, we congratulated him on doing such a good job, and for being so brave to be able to get to court. He was happy, but more importantly to him, the handsome judge (“though I usually like younger men”) had complimented him on his “best outfit. It’s the one I was wearing the day we filled out my apartment application. And when I met [Boyfriend].”
Best outfit, indeed.