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"I'm gonna put these guys out into the mainstream," Michael Watkins says, "and the mainstream will not know what hit them."

Envision a TV show about the homeless, by the homeless 

Ready for prime time

click to enlarge Click for larger image • Ricky Caldwell (left) and Michael Watkins want to produce a public access TV show in Raleigh about street life. - PHOTO BY JEREMY M. LANGE

It was, if not a dress rehearsal, then certainly a debut. Ricky Caldwell, a 43-year-old homeless man whose life until recently was a string of ex's—"ex-drug user, ex-drug dealer, ex-convict, high school drop-out"—spoke to the congregation several Sundays ago at Pullen Memorial Baptist Church in Raleigh.

Caldwell is a star in the church's job readiness program, part of its new ministry for the homeless. In a white shirt, tie and white V-neck sweater, Caldwell could've been the minister himself. "Sorrow looks back, worry looks around, and faith—and only faith—looks ahead," he declared in a strong, steady baritone voice. He's looking ahead.

Taking it all in from the first pew, Caldwell's homeless pal, Michael Watkins, beamed. Ricky "wowed" them, Watkins wrote later for "News from Our Shoes," his online chronicle of life on the streets of Raleigh. "The congregation was wide-eyed at the shock," Watkins went on, that a homeless man could be so articulate and impressive.

Hyperbole perhaps, but it's true that when the service ended, a long line of well wishers formed to meet Caldwell and shake his hand. "We're so proud of you," they said. And so was Watkins.

For some time—years, actually—Watkins' dream has been to produce a TV news program about the homeless by the homeless. His goal is to help end homelessness by lifting the shroud that hides it from public view—and public solutions.

It's no mere flight of fancy: Watkins is a bright guy who worked for a time, among many other jobs, at Raleigh's public-access television studio. He knows his way around a camera and an editing suite. But without saying anything about him that he wouldn't say himself, the 47-year-old Watkins is also not the greatest when it comes to follow-through—especially when the dream was his alone.

Enter Caldwell, who believes in Watkins and wants to help him. And Caldwell's strengths compensate for Watkins' weaknesses, and vice versa. Watkins is effervescent, but said he is "no pillar of strength"; Caldwell is stolid, with a quiet determination. Watkins has big ideas; Caldwell has savvy, coping abilities and presence, plus that great baritone voice.

And while there's a longer story to Caldwell's rebound from the gutter, his short answer was, when asked what turned his life around: "I met Mike, to be honest with you. I took his advice."

In short, they believe in each other.

The two of them were in dress clothes outside Cameron Village Regional Library recently, kicking around the lousy stock market news (it's a good time to upgrade your skills, Caldwell deadpanned). It was easy to imagine them as the producer-reporter team they aspire to be.

Now both men are living in the South Wilmington Street Center, the county-run shelter for homeless men in Raleigh, but hopefully, not for much longer. Watkins just landed another day job. Caldwell is on the verge of looking for one.

As a result, that TV gig, which will require some money, is looking like it could happen.

"It's a big challenge," Watkins said in a theatrical voice. "It will take a mighty, mighty miracle to pull this off."

"It will happen," Caldwell responded softly.

"Ricky is laid-back, to the point that he's a little shy," Watkins said of his friend. "He's also confident. He knows what he wants, and he's finding ways to get where he wants to go."

What Caldwell wants, paradoxically, is to slow down and, for the first time in his life, "do things the right way," not the expedient way.

"I can pull things together real quickly," he said, "but I didn't always take the time to analyze things fully and look ahead like I should."

Not looking ahead, Caldwell left high school and the Franklin County countryside where his family still lives for the big city of Raleigh and a life of drugs, crime, prison and, finally, homelessness.

On his blog, "Street Life" (at www.rickycaldwell.blogspot.com), he describes his criminal years as a cocktail of drug dealing, moving stolen cars and buying cocaine. He was running away from himself, he writes. And when he stopped running, he was arrested on multiple probation violations and landed in prison.

"Top Dog and I," he writes about a fellow street criminal (he was "Lead Dog"), "would always have these heart-to-heart talks. Sometimes it was good business strategies, and sometimes it was intellectual bullshit. The money of course was good, but he kept reminding me that my black ass was still hotter than a two-dollar pistol."

When he hit rock bottom, Caldwell says, he was ashamed, and he grew a huge beard and dressed in heavy overcoats to make himself invisible to passers-by. But inside, he wanted to be seen, and now he goes the opposite way: He's clean-shaven, well-dressed, and even a little persnickety when it comes to always wearing "matching leathers."

He's in a GED program, the Pullen program, and another life-skills program with the Step-Up ministry. His goal isn't a specific job. Rather, it's making a comfortable place for himself in the mainstream. "I'm 43, no kids, and by living in the shelter, I have time to choose," he says.

Caldwell said of Watkins: "Mike is very artistic. He goes inside a person and brings out the best that's inside of him. And he does that with everyone he meets. His standards are very high."

They're high, however, to the point of toxic perfectionism and, as Watkins admits, an inability to stick with a job. "I'm never happy in the workplace," he says, "because I haven't fulfilled my destiny. So I leave."

Watkins came to Raleigh 21 years ago after a prison stint for breaking and entering back home in Clinton. His brother, Hardy Watkins, was a high-ranking Raleigh city official who offered to help him. But they had a falling out, and since then Michael has bounced from job to job, in and out of apartments and various homeless shelters. He hasn't used drugs, he says, "except for weed." But he is easily bored.

Last year, he lived in a Cary apartment and worked in a call center, where he advised new customers how to activate their Nextel phones and to buy "socks"—the industry term for extra services and insurance. He made good money, he says, until he quit, and ended up—again—at the South Wilmington Street shelter.

Now enrolled in a shelter program for the chronically homeless, Watkins recently landed a new job in a national call center, where he gives tax advice over the phone to the company's clients. He's a tax expert? "Oh, yes," he says with studied nonchalance. "I've been doing taxes since I was 16."

As for their TV show, these two can pull it off if they complete a set of required courses at the Raleigh public-access studio—for which they're trying to find money (and sponsors)—that will allow them to use the city's video equipment.

They need some portable cameras to shoot footage on the street. A laptop computer and editing software would help. Pullen Baptist members have donated some resources, including the camera used to capture Ricky's talk, available on YouTube ("Ricky speaks at Pullen").

And they'll need some more hands. Already, they've found a third partner, Cliff White, who also lives at the shelter. White recently found a full-time job buffing the floors at WakeMed.

White pushed himself to get a job with Watkins' and Caldwell's help and encouragement. "Michael's like my nurturing seed," White said, "and Ricky's my rock. I'm glad God has blessed them into my life."

Their news show, Watkins promises, will be first-rate, and it will cast the homeless in new light for its viewers. "I'm gonna put these guys out into the mainstream," he says, "and the mainstream will not know what hit them."

Michael Watkins is editor of News from Our Shoes; visit the Web site and Facebook page.

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