For the past couple of years in downtown Atlanta, people walking to the Fulton County Courthouse, or to Mass at the Catholic Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, encountered a man with a crooked smile and a guitar staking out a street corner.
His name was Richard Harold Bradfield, although most people called him Ricky — if they called him anything. Some might merely nod and walk by or just pretend he wasn’t there. The homeless are used to being invisible.
It might seem odd for someone to camp out so regularly at such a public spot — the corner of MLK Drive and Central Avenue, next to the Underground parking garage. But people are creatures of habit, and somehow in Ricky’s mind he was preordained by God to stay there. At least that’s what he told his sister.
On Nov. 29, Ricky died at Grady Memorial Hospital after enduring cold rains earlier in the month. He was felled by the combined effects of pneumonia, a bad heart and years of hard living on the streets of Atlanta. He was 53 and a former carpenter who joined a choir that once sang at the White House. He leaves behind a son and other family members who desperately, and fruitlessly, tried to help him.
“We were always fearful of him living that way,” said his sister, an Atlanta woman who asked that her name not be used to allow the family some privacy. “The streets took a toll on him.”
The family tried everything as he spiraled ever lower under the weight of mental health issues, substance abuse and his own dogged stubbornness.
Late last week, his sister set up a memorial near the spot where he camped out: A framed photo, a bouquet of flowers and his empty guitar case with a short written explanation about his death.
“It was a way to honor him and say goodbye; I wanted to reach out to the people I knew were taking care of him,” she said. “I knew he must have had an angel or two.”
She discovered that there were, in fact, many.
The memorial brought about discussions from those who’d walked past him and had struck up conversations with him or had tried to help with cash, gift cards or food. One woman used to bring him pot roast, his sister learned. Somehow, he struck a chord with passersby.
Mike King, a retired AJC editor who attends the Shrine, often talked with Ricky and gave him Kroger gift cards. King wrote on Facebook that he gave Ricky an umbrella a few months ago as a storm threatened.
His comment struck a chord in my memory. I had often passed Ricky and sometimes slipped him a couple of bucks. I searched through my iPhone and found that on Sept. 28, I shot a photo of him sleeping under a battered golf umbrella. It read, “The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.” Turns out it was King’s old umbrella.
Ricky Bradfield was born into a middle-class Sandy Springs family, an athletic son of an architect who, ironically, volunteered decades ago to help the homeless.
Ricky married, had a son, got divorced and increasingly was beset by mental issues, including severe anxiety and a touch of paranoia, which wrecked his ability to focus and concentrate.
“He gave up work and quit trying,” his sister said. “And then, he ended up on the streets.”
Arrest records from the past decade illustrate a life unravelling: DUI, drug possession, disorderly conduct.
Ricky’s sister said he was living in his car a few years ago and sometimes parked in a nature preserve in Roswell. He was arrested for DUI and banned from that community.
“It makes me mad that these suburbs send their homeless to Atlanta,” she said.
The family tried to get him to see doctors and tried unsuccessfully to get him Social Security disability. They also gave him clothes and cellphones to keep in touch but the phones were lost or stolen.
“The streets were brutal,” his sister said. “He was beaten up all the time.”
Daniel Davis, a homeless man who knew Ricky vaguely, said, “Out here on the streets you got to watch out for each other. It’s hard out there in the winter. The cold weather will get you. Some survive, some don’t.”
Cathal Doyle, a director at the Central Night Shelter, which houses 100-plus men in November through March, said homeless men try to band together because “there’s safety in numbers.”
But, it seemed, Ricky became a loner and grew vulnerable.
He lived for a while in the Central Night Shelter, which is run in cooperation with the Catholic Shrine and the neighboring Central Presbyterian Church. Doyle said Ricky lived there “three seasons, in and out. He’d be there some weeks and miss some nights. In the end it did not work out. Our parting was not amicable.”
Doyle would not discuss what caused Ricky to be sent away, other than to say, “We have strict rules and guidelines. As long as people abide by them, we don’t turn them away.”
Doyle is from Ireland, as is his cousin, Donal Noonan, the Shrine’s music director and founder of the Atlanta Homeward Choir, whose members are homeless men. In 2015, Ricky joined the choir and improved as a singer as his confidence grew.
In December of that year, U.S. Rep. John Lewis got the choir a choice gig — at the White House. Ricky was part of that trip, which made the NBC Nightly News.
Belonging to the choir builds structure and camaraderie. (By the way, the Atlanta Homeward Choir will perform on Sunday, Dec. 9, at 5 p.m. at the Shrine.)
Noonan showed me a photo of the White House trip and said at least seven of the men pictured are no longer on the streets.
“There’s something about taking homeless people out of their environment; it helps break the normal routine,” Noonan said. But, he added, “the (crappiest) moment of my life was coming home and putting them back in the shelter.”
Sometime after the trip, Ricky fell out with the shelter and apparently would not go to another.
“Some people can’t live in a room full of other people,” his sister said. “It raises their anxiety.”
When he heard about Ricky’s death, Noonan said, “It was like a kick in the gut. It was like, ‘What more could I have done?’”
It’s a common question that gnaws at many people — from the choir director, to family members, to passersby who gave gift cards or pot roast.
There’s no simple answer.