The Street Samaritans
Page 3 of 3
Image: Rebuilding, Inc.
Tim Shorrock

For the people working here, Common Ground is the polar opposite to the time-crunched, profit-driven, top-down environment that's become standard in the health care industry. When the clinic crew learns that a patient is bedridden and can't get out of the house, someone drives there to pick her up and then arranges for transportation back home. The same doctor might make a diagnosis, write a prescription and go to the back room to fill it. One day, Max Fischer, who's in his fourth year of medical school at Columbia University, sees 10 patients in 15 hours—a fraction of the load he'd handle at a hospital or regular clinic. One is a 19-year old mother with an advanced bone infection in her leg; with Charity closed, she had no idea where to find a doctor. Max calls for an ambulance to take the woman to West Jefferson Hospital in Gretna—and rides along with her when it comes. "I see myself as a patient-advocate," says Fischer.

Alternative styles of medicine are big at Common Ground. "In those moments, in that half an hour I'm talking to someone, it's just love that I feel," says Marenka Cerny, a trauma counselor and massage therapist from Oakland who has set up a table just outside the clinic. Every day I'm there she has a steady stream of customers, who approach her shyly but get up from her table looking relieved. "We're providing human contact, the most basic thing you can do for people facing so much devastation and loss," she says. Next to her table, Korben Perry, an acupuncturist from Philadelphia, has put out a couple of chairs and a sign. One afternoon I find him working on Willy Kerr, who says he's been coming to the clinic ever since he got back to Algiers from Houston, where he was evacuated after the storm. He's never seen Chinese medicine before, but Perry persuades him the needle treatment will help relieve the pain in his back and gums. "I'm trying to stop smoking," Kerr confides. As Perry places needles in his earlobes and neck, Kerr chuckles, and then settles down for a 20-minute wait. "These people here are treating me real nice," he says. "I'd hate to see them go." Like many others in this neighborhood, Kerr, who worked until recently at a Murphy Oil refinery south of New Orleans, is convinced that the Ninth Ward didn't flood by chance. "They blew them levees," he tells me. "You make sure you write that down."

Later that afternoon, two camouflaged US Army trucks pull up outside the mosque. As their engines idle noisily, a young lieutenant jumps out, identifies himself as Louisiana National Guard, and announces that he has several boxes of supplies for the clinic. Moe, who spends much of her time organizing donated supplies of dubious utility, smiles widely when she sees the packets of cortisone and the children's antibiotic Zithromax. For the next 15 minutes, soldiers just back from Iraq and a couple of anarchists who've been protesting the war unload the truck together, swapping anecdotes about New Orleans and the French Quarter.

Unlike some of the volunteers, who camp out in the mosque and surrounding houses, during my stay in New Orleans I crash with other medical workers at Tent City, a FEMA campsite in Algiers. In the mess tent, you see everyone who has a piece of rebuilding and securing New Orleans: National Guard troops, their rifles leaning on the tables; exhausted workers from the water and sewer company; tough-looking New Orleans cops; and the uniformed private guards from Blackwater. It's a disconcerting place, full of short fuses and weapons, much like anyplace else in post-Katrina New Orleans—which is part of what makes Common Ground such an oddity.

By late October, all of the city is dry and relief workers as well as residents are beginning to venture into the Ninth Ward. Common Ground has set up a distribution center in a former day care center there, handing out donations from groups as varied as Pastors for Peace, which sent several box loads of boots, and the Islamic Relief Fund, which has provided 50 large buckets of "cleaning supplies"—each one marked with the logo of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints—containing masks, sponges, spray bottles, gloves and hand cleaner. Several times a week it sends a medical crew to the Disaster Recovery Center in the Lower Ninth Ward, a parking lot where FEMA has set up an information table for returning residents.

At the FEMA site, guns are everywhere; on the shoulders of the National Guard troops guarding the site and in the holsters of New Orleans cops and the Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers from the Department of Homeland Security. FEMA has hired four Blackwater guards for its own table; they stand around wearing identical logo'ed black shirts and identical wrap-around sunglasses.

Around them, the neighborhood is utterly destroyed. Electric and telephone wires are down; vehicles lie at crazy angles, some of them stuck in fences and walls and buried in living rooms. The streets and sidewalks are caked with mud that has calcified where it flowed into open doors. There's a silence that feels all wrong in a city neighborhood, broken only occasionally by the crunching sound of tires on the dry mud.

By contrast, Common Ground, despite its chaos and occasional dysfunction, feels almost light-hearted. By the time I visit again in December a steady stream of people from the neighborhood, (including Willy Kerr, the acupuncture patient), are signing up to volunteer. A lifelong Algiers resident, Sandra, is now working as the clinic's cook, doling out helpings of gumbo and bread pudding. A community advisory board is being set up, and the clinic is eyeing a larger site down the street. "That clinic is gonna be a permanent clinic," Malik Rahim tells me, "served by the people its serving right now."

Originally published in the March/April 2006 issue of Mother Jones Copyright © 2006 by Tim Shorrock. Reprinted with permission.