The Commercial Appeal

‘GEN­TLE GI­ANT’ f inds a HOME

- By Lawrence Buser / The Edge · Missing Persons · Churches of Christ · Frank James · Fort Hays State University · Alison Krauss · New Hope Ministries

LEE BROWN SUR­VEYED the site of New Hope Min­istries, where he was sched­uled to present a po­lice safety skit for chil­dren as part of a crime -preven­tion event in South Mem­phis.

The competitio­n was for­mi­da­ble: A two -story in­flat­able wa­ter slide beck­oned the two dozen chil­dren on an evening when the tem­per­a­ture was still 98 de­grees.

But Brown, who has faced chal­lenges that were far more dif­fi­cult in his life, was not wor­ried.

“I have the ultimate se­cret weapon,” he said with a nod to his long-armed, brown hand-pup­pet. “A talk­ing mon­key. Chimmy the safety mon­key.”

Brown and Chimmy quizzed the kids on bi­cy­cle safety, cross­ing streets and emer­gency phone num­bers, fi­nally cut­ting the Na­tional Night Out

pro­gram short and sur­ren­der­ing the antsy young au­di­ence to the wa­ter slide.

All in all, how­ever, not a bad evening for a man who lived on the streets of Mem­phis for 20 years and seven months.

In 2009, just two years off the streets, Brown passed a crim­i­nal back­ground check, grad­u­ated from the Cit­i­zens Po­lice Academy 10week course and now acts as a li­ai­son be­tween po­lice and his Mid­town com­mu­nity.

At the grad­u­a­tion cer­e­mony, an of­fi­cer gave spe­cial recog­ni­tion to Brown, at­tract­ing a round of ap­plause from of­fi­cers and class­mates.

“I turned about as red as a fire truck,” re­called Brown, 40, who af­ter nearly four years in an apart­ment still is ad­just­ing to life with walls. “The main rea­son I was out there so long was my mind­set was that I de­served that. My self­es­teem was zero. My self-worth was zero. Even though I’m not still on the streets, there’s a part of me that’s still out there.”

Af­ter long re­ly­ing on al­co­hol for his es­cape from the street life, Brown said he’s been sober for three years.

He still wears his hair in a buzz, about the same length as the stub­ble of a beard he sports.

Brown sur­vives on a monthly dis­abil­ity check for a va­ri­ety of ail­ments, none of which keeps him from work­ing as an un­of­fi­cial se­cu­rity man, greeter or handy­man at sev­eral Mid­town nightspots.

“He’s worked for us as a door­man, he sings karaoke and he’s been in and around to help out since we first opened in 1994,” said Frank James, owner of The Edge Cof­fee­House at Over­ton Park and Watkins. “He has never been a pan­han­dler or a bum. He’s al­ways wanted to earn his way and pay for things. His ap­pear­ance is dif­fer­ent, but he’s a smart guy.”

Af­ter a dif­fi­cult home life, Brown lived in fos­ter homes and group homes, dropped out of school af­ter the 10th grade and be­gan run­ning with a rough crowd, which re­sulted in a num­ber of con­tacts with Ju­ve­nile Court.

Be­fore his 20th birth­day, Brown joined the city’s 1,500 to 2,000 home­less, sur­viv­ing by his wits and what­ever aid strangers might of­fer, in­clud­ing some in blue uni­forms.

“We ac­tu­ally got quite a few calls on Lee, but it was al­ways be­cause he was sleep­ing out in the open; never for any­thing vi­o­lent,” said po­lice Sgt. Kathy Gooden, who has known Brown for some 20 years. “When I was on pa­trol on the mid­night shift, I would go around and check on him be­cause I knew where all his lit­tle sleep­ing holes were. Most of the time we just talked about his per­sonal prob­lems and demons he was fight­ing with.”

When Gooden was pro­moted last year, she was told by her com­man­der to at­tend a monthly meet­ing of the Neigh­bor­hood Watch am­bas­sadors where, to her sur­prise, she was pre­sented with a plaque by the street friend she hadn’t seen in years.

“He ac­tu­ally broke down be­cause he was so thank­ful that I was one of the of­fi­cers who cared,” re­called Gooden, who now works in the Miss­ing Per­sons Bu­reau. “Lee is just a spe­cial per­son. He’s a gen­tle gi­ant .”

Brown’s witty sto­ries from the streets sound like standup com­edy ma­te­rial.

He tells of a win­ter morn­ing when he woke up on the back porch of the old Scruggs Light­ing at Union near McLean to find three rac­coons nes­tled up against him for warmth.

An­other time, ac­cord­ing to Brown, he fell asleep on a bus bench af­ter a rain and an overnight freeze left him stuck to the bench. Un­able to pry him loose, fire­fight­ers had to take him and the bench to the emer­gency room to thaw.

On a warmer evening, he set­tled down for a Fri­day night’s sleep by a build­ing at Union and Kim­brough, but when he awak­ened the next morn­ing there were red laser sen­sors criss-cross­ing just above him. Fear­ing he would set off an alarm, Brown stayed in the spot all week­end un­til the se­cu­rity sys­tem was turned off on Mon­day.

“He has a trea­sure chest of sto­ries,” says long­time friend and sup­porter Joe Birch. “He may give the unini­ti­ated the idea that he’s a lit­tle dull, but he’s smart as a whip and he’s street savvy like you wouldn’t be­lieve.”

Birch, the news an­chor for WMC-TV, first met Brown when he was asleep on the sta­tion’s park­ing lot years ago and urged him to get off the streets, mostly to no avail.

“I would try to take him to a home­less shel­ter and some­times he would leave 10 min­utes af­ter we got there,” said Birch, who also helps Brown han­dle his money and medicines. “He was in­sti­tu­tion­al­ized, and so he sim­ply will not stay. If he would see any au­thor­i­ta­tive fig­ure telling him to do some­thing, he would run. It hasn’t been easy for him. It was a big deal to get his own place and it was a hard choice.”

Birch in­tro­duced Brown as “my for­merly home­less friend” when he had Brown in a suit to sing a gospel tune he wrote him­self at a fundrais­ing din­ner this year for the Cal­vary Res­cue Mis­sion.

“He does car­toon voices, has a great sense of hu­mor and he’s go­ing to be do­ing our pup­pet shows for safety for chil­dren,” said Kate Sides, Neigh­bor­hood Watch co­or­di­na­tor for the Union Sta­tion who ac­com­pa­nies Brown to the events. “He’s as pure -hearted as any­one I’ve ever seen.”

Oth­ers who know him talk about his un­com­mon gen­eros­ity.

“Lee is hands-down one of the most loyal peo­ple I’ve ever known,” says Josh Ross, preach­ing min­is­ter at Sy­camore View Church of Christ, who has known Brown for three years. “I’ve seen him take the only $5 bill in his pocket and give it to some­one else who needed it. I’ve wit­nessed Lee talk peo­ple out of sui­cide, al­co­holism, drug ad­dic­tions, and I’ve seen him help peo­ple choose peace in­stead of vi­o­lence.”

So now the once -home­less man who used to keep all his earthly pos­ses­sions with him in a shop­ping cart — “my mo­bile home” — is en­ter­tain­ing chil­dren and do­ing what he can to help those still on the streets, say­ing he gets as much as he gives.

“I do it now be­cause I get some­thing out of it and some­one else gets some­thing out of it.”

— Lawrence Buser: 529-2385

 ?? Jim We­ber/The Com­mer­cial Ap­peal ?? As part of his Cit­i­zens Po­lice Academy vol­un­tarism, for­merly home­less Lee Brown, 40, at­tends a Na­tional Night Out at New Hope Min­istries where “Chimmy the safety mon­key” ad­vises kids, in­clud­ing Quishawn Ad­di­son, 3, on emer­gency phone num­bers and other...
Jim We­ber/The Com­mer­cial Ap­peal As part of his Cit­i­zens Po­lice Academy vol­un­tarism, for­merly home­less Lee Brown, 40, at­tends a Na­tional Night Out at New Hope Min­istries where “Chimmy the safety mon­key” ad­vises kids, in­clud­ing Quishawn Ad­di­son, 3, on emer­gency phone num­bers and other...
 ?? Robert Co­hen/The Com­mer­cial Ap­peal files ?? Lee Brown dances to the mu­sic of a gospel group in Court Square in this 1991 pho­to­graph. “I was drunker than Cooter Brown. There were spir­its from the bot­tle and spir­its from the mu­sic and we got to­gether to dance. I think you can say I was spir­ited.”...
Robert Co­hen/The Com­mer­cial Ap­peal files Lee Brown dances to the mu­sic of a gospel group in Court Square in this 1991 pho­to­graph. “I was drunker than Cooter Brown. There were spir­its from the bot­tle and spir­its from the mu­sic and we got to­gether to dance. I think you can say I was spir­ited.”...

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