The Street Samaritans
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Image: Rebuilding, Inc.
Tim Shorrock

For activists accustomed to being marginal, Common Ground has been a revelation too. "How many political actions do you have when all of a sudden the community kind of descends on you?" asks Scott Weinstein, a tall, bearded RN from Washington, D.C., who was one of the first arrivals and serves as a liaison with what's left of the New Orleans medical community. He says the clinic has reshaped the way he thinks about politics. "Most people think of direct action as taking a street during a demonstration," he says, "but big deal, so you got a street. This is not about taking the streets; it's about taking health care."

The Majid Bilal Mosque sits on a busy street corner three blocks down from the levee. There, just past a warehouse storing colorful floats from past Mardi Gras, you can see the city's skyline, the Superdome and the two Carnival Cruise ships—the Sensation and the Ecstasy—that were leased by the federal government for nearly $200 million to house emergency workers. Big tugs and ocean-going tankers and container ships pass by in a steady stream. The clinic itself is surrounded by tiny, one-story houses, most of their roofs patched with blue plastic tarps. A sign on the building's back door reads: "No Weapons Allowed. Please Respect the Mosque"—a reference to the ubiquitous guns toted by the National Guard and private security guards at every government facility in the city. When the clinic opens for business one October morning at 8:30 a.m., the waiting room immediately fills up with patients.

Andrew Summer, a laid-off shipyard worker living in nearby Gretna with his brother, is here to get his medications refilled—still, months after the storm, the most common need among Common Ground's patients. Summer is tall, lanky, and visibly tired. He survived Katrina in the Lower Ninth Ward, was brought by boat to the Convention Center, and eventually flown to Houston. He can't fill his prescriptions because Charity Hospital, the famed hospital that once served most of New Orleans's poor, has been shut down. "It's great how they're handling the people here," he says.

Taking in the scene from his stoop a few doors down is Leroy Refuge, 53, a lifetime New Orleans resident who used to drive a school bus for the local diocese. He and a companion he is caring for ("her name is Miss Dorothy L. Brown, and she's 78 years old") have both visited the clinic and got shots "to keep the germs and everything away." Refuge, too, was evacuated from Algiers; he ended up at Kelly Air Force Base in Texas before being flown home three weeks later. "Now we're back at 329 Socrates and just tryin' to live," he says. "My mind is still a little fuzzy, but I'm comin' around—slowly but surely, slowly but surely." For many of Common Ground's patients, the clinic is a relief not just from Katrina and the healthcare vacuum that followed—suddenly there were no doctors or hospitals in New Orleans, and neither the Red Cross nor FEMA seemed able to provide any—but from a quieter, long-term emergency. According to Rahim, 85 percent of the men in Algiers are uninsured, "and for many of them, the last time they saw a doctor was in prison or in emergency at Charity."

Common Ground has found itself serving some unexpected needs too. During its first month, its medical teams gave immunizations to hundreds of laborers employed by subcontractors for the likes of Shaw Inc. and Halliburton—companies that left their workers, many of them Latino immigrants, to figure out for themselves which shots they needed and where to get them. When Rita flooded hundreds of square miles in the bayou town around Houma, Louisiana, Common Ground fielded the only relief team to visit the area; neither the Red Cross nor FEMA ever made it, according to Dr. Rantz and three other volunteers who went.

Most of Common Ground's medical work happens at three crude work stations in what used to be the mosque's worship hall. Station One is a card table with makeshift shelves holding cotton swabs, rubber gloves and other equipment; a stethoscope hangs over the one corner. Station Two consists of a pair of stools standing next to a set of shelves that looks like it came from a motel room. Stacked neatly are some of the donated supplies the clinic is handing out: Tampax, witch hazel, Enfamil formula, calcium supplement. Station Three is the only "private" room in the clinic, partitioned from other stations with bedsheets. After a brief intake from a triage volunteer, patients wait their turn in the line of chairs that serves as a waiting room; when their name is called, they head for one of the stations, where a nurse practitioner takes their vitals and consults with one of the doctors about what to do.

In the adjoining room, past the busy phone and fax machine, is a crude pharmacy stocked with supplies that have been donated from organizations like Vets for Peace and Food Not Bombs. At the back is a bank of computers linked to the Internet through a sporadic wireless connection provided by FEMA from the cruise ships across the river. On one wall are lists of important projects and tasks that need volunteers, including "critical incident debriefing" and "medical legal support," under which someone has scrawled "or covering our heinies." One task is more general: "Infusing all we do with anti-oppression intentions."

Although hierarchy is frowned on here, some people at Common Ground clearly play leadership roles. One of them is Moe, an RN and herbalist from Montana who has been here since early September. She is often one of the first to greet newcomers and the person to find when there's a problem with no ready solution. Moe is short, with a moon-shaped face that seems to be framed in a perpetual smile. Like Noah, she's part of the street medic network that descends on cities like Seattle or Washington, D.C., whenever there's a big demonstration. She is gentle, low-key, and pragmatic. In late November, it was Moe who pushed hard to get the clinic to close every Friday so volunteers could take a break. "We couldn't get anything done" for the stress, she tells me.