Let me begin with a little rhetorical throat-clearing. I haven't written a long piece in a long time, and this is pretty long. There are many details and ideas that want to crowd up to the front and make themselves heard, and I'm afraid that what follows will be a bit unruly. But it's important to say what needs to be said, even imperfectly, than to remain perfectly quiet. So I ask you to have a little patience and bear with me.
Everything about this story is true.
Right now, it's a little after midnight and it's raining. Ten years ago, I met a man named Larry in the woods.
When I met Larry in the woods, he was living in a hole in the ground, or rather a shallow depression, behind a small chemical plant in a light industrial district. He slept on a small platform made of loading pallets, covered with some blankets for softness and warmth, and topped with a tarp that he pulled over himself like another blanket. When it rained, he covered himself with the tarp and opened an umbrella over his head to stay dry.
When I met Larry in the woods, it wasn't some blind coincidence - I was looking for homeless people that day, looking for potential clients for the Housers
. A team of volunteers that I led were exploring along a railroad when we came across him. It was likely the only way anyone would have ever found him - Larry stayed away from folks, and had been outside and isolated for so long that public places freaked him out. He'd gotten accustomed to being alone, but he never stopped being lonely. When we talked to him and show him a little kindness, he burst into tears. It was like discovering a castaway on a desert island.
Larry burst into tears several times in that initial interview; he was drunk. Larry was an alcoholic, and a schizophrenic, and had been homeless since the 80s, when Reagan shut down the mental hospitals. His campsite was near an imperfectly locked dumpster for a local wine wholesaler, where he could reach an arm in and pull out discarded bottles one by one. There were hundreds of empty wine bottles littering his campsite. Larry knew where all the local dumpsters were, and was able to keep himself fed and clothed - and drunk - off the castoffs of the community. Larry was very good at scavenging, but then again, Larry had had plenty of time to practice.
Larry was a sweet guy and in many ways an ideal client. His story - a physically and mentally abusive stepfather, his early mental illness, the kind doctors who were able to keep him from suicide but unable, in their limited time with him, to help him keep his life together - was touching, as was his obvious isolation and loneliness. His location made it difficult for us to build him one of our standard ten foot high huts, so he became the first person to receive one of our four foot high 'Low Rider' shelters, designed for the Larrys of the world - folks who need a shelter, but also need to remain hidden. He was very grateful, and that was gratifying. We like it when our work is appreciated; who doesn't?
Officially, all our clients are entitled to shelter regardless of how likable or unlikeable you are; one of our sayings is that "even assholes need a place to sleep." Unofficially, however, if we like you we'll try a harder to help you beyond just a shelter, and everybody liked Larry. A few volunteers took Larry under their wing, supplying him with little extras like phone cards and wind-up flashlights, purchased with their own money. My wife Tracy worked with Larry to get his ID and Social Security card back, starting with requests to the Navy for Larry's discharge papers and rebuilding his identity from there.
There were setbacks, of course, and all of this took years. But a few years back, we were able to find a psychiatrist who would go out into the field and meet with Larry, instead of having Larry come to her office, and that was the real beginning of the end. It's taken about three years, but Larry is now in a subsidized apartment, listening to the rain on a roof instead of on a tarp. He's been sober now for nearly a year, and talks of getting a job. We're all terribly proud of Larry. He's our biggest success story, a person whose life has been profoundly bettered by that chance meeting ten years ago.
But that's not the point of this story.
Larry isn't the only client that the Housers have had. He's not even the only success story; we've had a good number of people eventually leave the huts and reenter society. But it took an extraordinary amount of effort on the part of a few people to get Larry out of the woods, and those folks did it - we did it - because we liked Larry personally.
I'm not saying this in an attempt to belittle what these folks have done, they have every reason to be proud. It's just that, given the fact that we're an all volunteer group, every ounce of effort we spend comes from love. We have lives outside of the Housers - families, daytime jobs, friends and hobbies, and the time we spend on helping the homeless is, like the homeless themselves, only marginal to our lives. There's only so much effort we can spend. There's only so much love. And it doesn't cover everyone who needs it.
Like Larry. And now I'm not talking about the first Larry, the crazy man living in the woods next to the railroad tracks in a bad part of town. No, in one of those weird coincidences that crop up in everyone's life, this is a second man I know, also named Larry, who is crazy, in the woods, next to the railroad tracks, in a bad section of town.
This Larry lives closer to us than the other Larry, the "good" Larry. Talking to the "bad" Larry is terrifying - he'll look through you mumbling about how the President and the Generals want him to be out there, while mosquitos buzz around his bare feet. Larry had had a business in the neighborhood, but lost it after he got addicted to crack and descended into paranoid delusion. We got the psychiatrist out to talk with him briefly, and even she was disturbed by him and did not want to go out to talk with him unescorted. Frankly, I can't blame her.
Like Larry I, we built Larry II a Low Rider, and I checked up on him occasionally, but nobody really took him under their wing. And eventually, he disappeared. Like Larry I, Larry II is too damaged and too poor to seek out help on his own. If we had enough resources, we could assign a case worker to work with him and try to keep him on track, find professional help. But of course, we have no resources, and there's little love to be found for Larry.
I'm worried about Larry II. I'm worried about the community he lives in; folks there know him, but how safe is it to have him wandering around? How safe is he?
It's now 2am and it's still raining. Where is he?