Eric Martin was found dead a couple weeks ago, just steps from City Hall. His friends believe he froze to death.
But before that, before depression and alcoholism drove him to homelessness, Martin was an exceptionally hard worker and always well-dressed, according to one of his four siblings, Oliver Martin.
“He loved stuff like that: colognes and lotions and dressing nice,” Oliver Martin said. “He was real clean and preppy. He was like a pretty boy.”
Even when it became harder in the last years of his life, Eric Martin cared about smelling good, said Margaret Smith, a regular volunteer at homelessness nonprofit Constance Abbey. She’s been thinking this past week about his excitement over a bottle of cologne she gave him – and how he teased her about the way her eyes grew huge in horror when she saw a man cough near her early in the pandemic.
The 33-year-old was light-hearted, friendly and sweet. He told her many times that he wasn’t going to survive life on the streets — aware that his own gentleness was no asset while homeless.
“He was not a tough guy. … He was funny (and) attractive,” Smith said. “He had this smile and everybody was just drawn to him because of his smile.”
During a memorial service Wednesday morning, the reverend spoke of the way God shone through that smile. Smith and others who knew Martin said it was a tragedy to lose such a light.
Smith has also been thinking about how to make sure it doesn’t happen again.
Understaffed and unsustainable
It’s not clear why Martin didn’t make his way to shelter. And his cause of death has not been determined, according to the Shelby County Medical Examiner’s office. But for both Smith and Constance Abbey founder Roger Wolcott, his death underscores the need for the city to improve the warming center program it runs during extremely cold weather.
While the center is open 24 hours on weekends, it is only open from 7 p.m. until 7 a.m. Monday through Friday, doesn’t provide food and — perhaps most importantly — opens with too little notice to alert those who need to know, Wolcott said.
It’s a program that is understaffed and the approach is “unsustainable,” said Will Lively, a City of Memphis Office of Emergency Management supervisor who helps run the center. “We are trying to come up with a more viable solution.”
Unlike prior years, the city has only operated one center this winter: the Marion Hale Community Center near the intersection of Perkins Road and Interstate 240 in southeast Memphis. There’s no set temperature for when it opens. It was open Wednesday and Thursday night, when lows were around 20 degrees— and will be open Friday night, when temperatures will dip into the teens.
It has space for about 150 people to sleep in chairs spaced six feet apart, Lively said. Everyone who shows up is given a blanket and a bottle of water and tested for COVID. Those who are COVID-positive are isolated in a different part of the shelter.
Until a few years ago, Martin was a long-tenured cashier at the Kroger at 1212 E. Shelby Dr. in Whitehaven. With no car, he would walk to work each day and walk wherever else he needed to go, said Oliver Martin.
One day, Oliver Martin was driving past his brother as he walked to work. He pulled over to offer him a ride. Eric declined, saying he didn’t want to get used to a luxury he didn’t normally have.
“He was so resilient … strong and focused,” Oliver Martin said. “I don’t know what happened that led him astray.”
Wolcott and friends of Eric Martin said that in the last couple of years, he would often speak of his family, especially his nephew and his mom, who died in 2011.
Eric and his mom were extremely close and her death was hard on him, Oliver Martin said, but he struggles to understand why Eric’s depression didn’t worsen until six or seven years later.
In 2019, Eric lost his job. A few months later, he was hanging out with his family and got upset, Oliver said. He walked out the door, and no one in the family ever saw him again.
His relatives, who did not attend the memorial service at St. Mary’s, are trying to raise money for another memorial service.
“If word gets out…”
Lively’s Office of Emergency Management team has eight people, all of whom have many responsibilities unrelated to running the emergency shelter. To keep the center staffed, they rely on the police department and other city employees.
Lively chalks up most of the program’s faults to a lack of funding. If his team had more employees, they could keep the shelters open during the day and they wouldn’t be afraid of too many people showing up — a fear that is part of the reason they don’t provide food.
“We try to just get the people who really need shelter. If word gets out that we have food, we may be overrun,” he said.
Along with fear of overcrowding, Lively said he’s been told the no-food policy was established because the city would be liable if someone became sick from food poisoning. Plus, his team isn’t trained to feed crowds.
Smith and Wolcott agree that food would be a draw, which is why they think it’s necessary. A meal could be the difference between someone showing up to the center or deciding to brave the freezing temperatures on their own.
Wolcott said his group and other nonprofits could easily provide the food; they just need permission, which the city granted for part of last winter but has been unwilling to grant this year.
“It just doesn’t make sense to be governed by a policy that comes across as mean,” Wolcott said. “Just be a little hospitable.”
As for the lack of advance notice, Lively said his team is wary of less predictable, longer-range weather forecasts when deciding how to use its limited resources.
But to Wolcott, more notice would be precious. The Hospitality Hub — a nonprofit near Constance Abbey that provides housing, employment and access to services — knows where many people experiencing homelessness pitch their camps and tries to alert them that the warming center is opening. Meanwhile, the Constance Abbey staff spreads the word to unhoused Memphians they see or hear from and hope they pass it along to others.
At a breakfast for unhoused Memphians Wednesday morning, Wolcott still couldn’t confidently tell attendees the center would be open that night, though he expected it would be. He got word of the opening by early afternoon, which he said is more notice than he usually gets.
Lively said his team tries to spread the word as best it can once it’s made a decision. His team made the decision on Tuesday for Wednesday night and began alerting homeless shelters, hospitals and other nonprofits.
Lively and Wolcott agree on the primary solution to the warming center program’s woes: more nonprofit involvement. The Office of Emergency Management has been working on a plan for about a year to pay nonprofits to run the program, Lively said.
Once some more details are worked out, his team will ask for City Council approval and extra funds.
Martin used to take interest in the warming centers too, said Lisa Anderson, director of the sheltering program Room in the Inn.
During past cold fronts, he would ask if they were going to open because he wanted to help others living on the streets stay safe, she said. She’ll never forget watching Martin realize that a shelter he was at didn’t have room for a woman who had shown up after him. He offered his spot.
Martin, Anderson said, always asked how she and her family were doing before she had a chance to ask about him.
“He was just a friend,” Anderson said. “It wasn’t a relationship of taking care of him. It was a relationship of being friends.”
His friend Vince Lockhart said Martin was too nice and trusting, which led to him being taken advantage of multiple times. Martin often gave him and other unhoused Memphians clothing — including the black shoes Lockhart was wearing.
“He would give everybody the shirt off of his back if he could,” Lockhart said. “The man had a good heart.”
Jacob Steimer is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms. Email him at Jacob.Steimer@mlk50.com
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