Ricky (Soda Pop)

Before the HUB Urban Ministries was located downtown, working everyday with the homeless population in Shreveport, it was one woman and her husband who wanted to make a difference. Cassie and Brent Hammett started the HUB in 2007 and would regularly sit with Shreveport’s homeless population downtown around the library and the courthouse, meeting new people and their needs.

“This was way before the HUB was what it has become today,” said Cassie Hammett, HUB founder. “We wanted to get to know these people personally to really understand what their problems and needs were rather than try to help based off of their assumed needs.”

It was in these early days that Hammett first started hearing the name “Soda Pop.” Soda Pop was someone about whom this community raved, and not with a positive connotation. Hammett would hear countless stories about this man. Stories about how mean he was, how he would only talk in bets and wagers, his cart full of soda cans, and how much he loved Coca-Cola.

Every time Hammett heard something about Soda Pop, it was usually a warning. “Watch out for Soda Pop,” the rest of the homeless population who knew him would say. No one knew his real name or his age. All they really knew about this man was that he was older, he lived in a homeless village in the woods and he collected soda cans.

The more warnings Hammett received to stay away from Soda Pop, the more determined she was, not only to meet him, but also to befriend him. “I just thought, if there’s ever one person who everyone tells me to steer clear from, that’s the person I want to meet,” Hammett said.

It was not long, however, before Hammett got her chance. One day while Hammett was sitting outside the courthouse with some of her homeless friends, she saw a hunched figure in the distance. As the figure came closer, Hammett realized he was pushing something. It was a cart full of soda cans. She immediately knew that this was the infamous Soda Pop.

Hunched over his cart, his hair was long and matted and his skin was blackened with dirt. Soda Pop pushed his cart close enough for Hammett to call out to him from across the street. She started to cross the street but the man yelled an obscenity at her and quickly walked away.

“It was at that moment that I decided this man was going to be my friend,” said Hammett. One week later, Hammett was sitting in the same spot when she saw Soda Pop again. This time she went and sat next to him and started talking. The man did not acknowledge her. He did not speak to her or even look at her, but Hammett kept talking. This was the same story for the next three times Hammett encountered Soda Pop.

There were times when Hammett would talk to Soda Pop and he would become extremely angry. He spit at her and threw cans in her direction. Hammett realized that for some reason unknown to her (she assumed it was because of negative past experiences), Soda Pop could not or would not have interactions with other people without responding in a violent manner.

Throughout these various experiences with Soda Pop, Hammett never feared him. Rather, she sought to understand him and his boundaries. Hammett knew that if Soda Pop was going to be her friend, it was going to have to be on his terms.

For the next year, Hammett sought to learn these boundaries and she did so by trial and error, usually by making him mad. She learned that he did not like physical touch, being around big crowds, questions about himself, or people touching his things. She also learned that despite all of Soda Pop’s needs and where he lived, he would not accept help from any of the organizations seeking to help the homeless in Shreveport. She learned that there was only one other person in the world who Soda Pop was friends with, a woman who Cassie had befriended in her time spent with the homeless, named Ms. Evelyn.

Hammett started buying Soda Pop bottles of Coca-Cola, which she would send to him through Ms. Evelyn. There was no other communication between Soda Pop and Hammett other than the Coca-Cola.

One year after starting the HUB, they began hosting meals for the homeless downtown. Soda Pop did not come to these events at first because of his dislike of crowds. One day, much to Hammett’s surprise, she looked up and there he was. Soda Pop was at the event sitting at one of the folding tables.

“At that point, I knew that he trusted me on some level, but he still would not acknowledge me,” Hammett said. As Soda Pop began to come to the events the HUB was hosting, Hammett would sit next to him and talk. The more time that went by, the harder it became for Hammett to try and befriend him.

“It was really difficult to extend mercy and grace and friendship into someone’s life when he would not even look in my direction,” said Hammett. Despite her own difficulty and frustration, Hammett continued trying to befriend Soda Pop. She grew increasingly concerned for his well being. Although she did not know his exact age, she knew he was older and he was still living outside. She grew to care about him the way one cares for a grandparent, even though she had never had a real conversation with him.

One summer day in 2008, a breakthrough came for Hammett and Soda Pop through the form of a pipe. Hammett saw him sitting downtown under a tree and she went and sat next to him. Soda Pop pulled out a pipe, packed it and began to smoke.

“You know I like smoking pipes too, Soda Pop,” said Hammett, and for the first time, he looked at her.

“I don’t believe you” were the first words he ever said to her.

Knowing that Soda Pop spoke a language of bets and wagers, Hammett replied with two words: “Wanna bet?”

Soda Pop took her up on the offer. This was Soda Pop’s bet: Hammett had to meet him under that same tree on December 15th at five o’clock with her pipe. If she didn’t show up or could not pack the pipe and smoke it, then she owed Soda Pop 30,000 bus passes.

Hammett replied, “Okay, Soda Pop, but if I do come and smoke this pipe then I get to take you to a steak dinner.” Soda Pop agreed and they parted that day. For the next six months, Soda Pop went back to not acknowledging Hammett, and every time she saw him she would remind him of the bet and to meet her at five o’clock on December 15th.

Hammett told everyone she worked with at the HUB about the bet so they could help her remember. She even set an alarm in her phone for that day and time to make sure she would not forget.

When December 15th came, Hammett was prepared. She took her pipe and arrived at the tree ten minutes early. Five o’clock came and went and there were no signs of Soda Pop. Hammett was sure that after six months of waiting for this day, she had been stood up. Then she saw a billow of smoke rising from behind a trashcan about a block away.

“I see you Soda Pop!” Hammett called out. Soda Pop stood up from behind the trashcan and slowly walked toward Hammett, pipe in hand. He sat down next to her and she began to pack her pipe. As soon as she began to smoke it, Soda Pop began to talk to her for the first time in a year and a half.

“My name is Ricky Morgan and my birthday is September 15, 1953,” Soda Pop said. For the next forty-five minutes he and Hammett held a steady conversation. Ricky told her about his family, his childhood, where he was from and how long he had been homeless.

“From that moment, I knew I was in,” Hammett said, “It was like a switch went off in his head and we were friends.” Hammett explains that communicating with Ricky was like communicating with a young child.

Despite winning the bet, Hammett did not expect Ricky to come with her to the steak dinner. Much to her surprise, Ricky agreed to come to Outback with Hammett and her husband on one condition: Ms. Evelyn had to come, too.

On the agreed upon night, Hammett and her husband went to pick up Ricky and Ms. Evelyn. Hammett immediately noticed something different about her new friend. For the first time in a year and a half, Soda Pop had changed shirts. He was still blackened with dirt and his hair was still long and matted, but the new shirt was a symbol. It was a sign of the effort he was starting to put forth. Hammett saw him and knew that her efforts were not in vain.

When they got to the restaurant that evening Ricky put his napkin in his lap and placed all the silverware in its proper place in front of him. He even waved the waiter over and ordered what he wanted with exact specificity.

“In very subtle ways, he was starting to act like a human,” Hammett said. “When no one cares about you, you don’t care about yourself, but Ricky was starting to realize we cared about him. Until this point, no one had tried to care for him in a way that made sense to him. We learned that if we functioned on Ricky’s terms and according to his boundaries, we would be good, but if not, we would be out.”

After that night, Hammett and Ricky became close friends. As their friendship developed, Hammett yearned more and more to help Ricky move into a more permanent living situation than his tent in the woods. The more she tried to help him, the more she realized that Ricky did not mind living in the woods.

“Over and over I would ask, ‘Ricky, will you please let me house you?’ and his answer was always the same, ‘Nope.’” Hammett said.

In the meantime, the HUB had begun running programs and daily operations out of the basement of a downtown apartment building. They affectionately referred to this space as “The Basement.” Not long after the night Hammett and her husband took Ricky to dinner, she received a phone call from a HUB employee.

“Cassie,” said the voice of Caleb Carter, the HUB employee who ran day-to-day operations at the time, “Ricky is standing at the entrance of the Basement.” Until this point, Ricky had never set foot in this building. That whole day, he stood at the threshold, but never came inside. The next day he came back and took one step inside. This process slowly progressed until Ricky was coming to the Basement on a daily basis. He became a HUB regular, all the while, continuing to refuse housing of any sort.

Over the next few years, Hammett and other HUB employees and volunteers saw many changes in Ricky. He was coming daily to the Basement, where he was involved in various HUB events. At one point, one of the employees even got him to take a sponge bath.

There was one HUB volunteer in particular whom Ricky took a liking to. Heather Hopkins was a nursing student at the time and was volunteering at the Basement three times a week. She first met Ricky at a HUB event called “Lunch on the Street.” It took Ricky some time to trust Hopkins, but eventually they would meet every day at five o’clock in front of the courthouse, and Hopkins would bring him a Coca-Cola.

“Ricky is all about people keeping their word,” Hopkins said. “He’s very predictable and so he likes predictable people. I had to go through a lot of the same process Cassie did trying to gain his trust, but after a while he found me trustworthy and we met every day after work.”

In these years, as Hammett and the HUB volunteers celebrated these little wins in Ricky’s life, there were also a few setbacks. He would get mad at people, even Hammett, and yell at them for reasons they could not comprehend. Sometimes he would spit on other volunteers and people coming to HUB events.

Despite these setbacks, Ricky became a mascot for the HUB. He did not have clear conversations with people, he still spoke in bets and wagers and used only singsong phrases, but the HUB staff loved his company.

In June of 2012, Hammett and her husband were about to leave the country to pick up the daughter they were adopting from Africa. Hammett tried her best to prepare Ricky for her prolonged absence, but he was still upset she was leaving for the month.

While Hammett was out of the country, she frequently Skyped her friends and HUB employees back in the states. During one of these calls, Hammett could hear Ricky’s voice in the background asking a question.

“How’s Cassie?” Ricky asked. After a short hesitation, he followed it up with another question. “How’s the baby?”

“That was the first sign of Ricky’s affection for other people really expanding. Until that point, it was uncharacteristic of him to care about anyone other than the people in his immediate circle, but when he wanted to know about the well being of my child, that was a game changer,” Hammett said.

From the moment the Hammetts brought their daughter Liv home, Ricky was smitten with her. She was the first and only person with whom Ricky holds crystal clear conversations. Ricky, who hates the spotlight and taking photos, has only ever willingly posed for one of Hammett’s photos.

“He only took that photo because Liv was in it. And because I gave him a coke,” Hammett said.
After Liv came home, Hammett noticed a new sense of warmth about Ricky that he had not had before. He became friendlier to employees, volunteers, and strangers, all people outside of his inner circle. He became more capable of being surrounded by company as a whole.

“This is the perfect example of how we approach things at the HUB,” Hammett said. “It’s all relational and based in friendship. Ricky would never have gotten to this point if not for true friendship.”

In 2013, the HUB moved their daily operations into a large downtown building on Cotton Street. They began The Lovewell Center Program, which is an earning-based approach to help those in poverty. Those enrolled in The Lovewell Center Program can earn points by taking classes toward their GED or attending meetings. As a result, they can spend those points at any one of the four stores within the
Lovewell: The Dresswell, an apparel store, The Eatwell, a food pantry, The Smellwell, a Laundromat, and The Drinkwell, a coffee shop. The HUB operates within this pay-and-earn based model in order to challenge the poverty mindset. Today there are over 2,100 people enrolled in The Lovewell Center Program.

In the summer of 2014, Hammett received a phone call from Carter. Something had happened to Ricky. Carter had no details other than he was on his way to LSU Medical Center. Hammett knew that Ricky had to have been incapacitated because he would have never agreed to go the hospital.

Hammett and Carter raced to the hospital and found the room where Ricky was supposed to be. When they arrived, Ricky was out for tests but his clothes were in a pile in the corner of the room, soaked in blood. A nurse came in and told them that the hospital staff were on their way back with Ricky, but that Hammett and Carter needed to prepare themselves for what they were about to see.

When Ricky was brought back into the room he was completely unrecognizable. The only way Hammett knew it was him was because of his hair, the rest of him was beaten and bloody. She collapsed in shock.
“Working at the HUB, Cassie and I had seen a lot of things, but as soon as I caught a glimpse of Ricky’s face, I knew this was the worst thing we had seen yet,” Carter said.

They later learned that Ricky had been at his camp when a man confronted him about money. There had been rumors circulating for years that Ricky had money buried at his camp. When the man had not gotten what he wanted, he beat Ricky and left him for dead. Ricky came to a while later and dragged himself out of the woods. A policeman found him and Ricky asked to be taken to The Lovewell. It was then that Ricky was taken to LSU Med Center.

Every bone in Ricky’s face had been broken. His pallet was disconnected and his eye sockets were also broken and disconnected. Ricky, in his sixties, was terrified and screaming in the hospital, and yet, he refused to take any sort of pain medication. He was in the hospital for three weeks and underwent two facial reconstruction surgeries over the course of the summer.

Hammett visited Ricky every day in the hospital. She arrived one day and immediately after stepping off the elevator could hear Ricky, terrified and alone, calling her name from down the hall.

“In that moment, after all these years, I knew he understood how much I loved him,” Hammett said.

When Ricky was discharged from the hospital weeks later, he had no desire to go back to the woods.

“It scared him to a degree that he knew he could not go back,” said Hammett.

Ricky was due to have one more surgery before the summer was over, and he needed a peaceful place to stay and recover, where his wounds would not become infected. For the rest of the summer, Ricky stayed with the HUB staff pastor, Miles Roberts, in his home. He was at every HUB staff meeting, he was at hangouts and movie nights and birthday parties. Ricky went from being a HUB regular to part of the family.

Right before Ricky’s final surgery, Hammett took her daughter and went to see him. She was concerned about where he was going to live after the surgery was over. That day she asked Ricky the question she had asked him a million times before.

“Ricky, will you please let me put you in an apartment?”

For seven years Hammett had been asking Ricky the same question, and for seven years she had always gotten the same answer. This time the answer was different. Ricky agreed to be housed.

Ricky moved into his apartment and had his own roof over his head for the first time in years, but a battle was still set before him. He needed to qualify for disability in order to pay for his rent, but he had no ID, no social security number, and no knowledge of his full name or his mother’s name.

“It took us seven months to find any information on Ricky,” Hammett said. “When we finally got everything in order it was miraculous. The government processed it and he was officially on disability. Ricky is the exact kind of person who disability was created for in the first place.”

Today, over a year later, Ricky is completely recovered and still living in his apartment. He receives benefits every month and pays his own rent, and he has never been late on a payment. He continues to come to The Lovewell every day and he is still smitten with Liv. He and Hammett remain friends to this day, and he still loves soda pop. Ricky is a testament to the power of true friendship, and he is only one of thousands of people whose lives have been changed in this city because of the HUB.