By Tim Campbell,
Director of Programs
Larry had been coming to the Coalition for over ten years before he passed away in December. A short, stocky man, built a bit like a fire hydrant with the voice of a bullhorn, he was a colorful character to say the least.
Over the last decade we helped Larry get the disability benefits he needed and deserved. We helped get him into the shelter he had the right to – only to lose the shelter. We helped him get into housing – only to lose the housing. In fact, we did all these things many times. See, in addition to severe mental health and medical issues, Larry had an unrelenting addiction to alcohol, and needless to say, things could get messy with Larry.
This was a man who spent years and years off and on the streets, who had been kicked out of countless drop-in centers, and someone who, undoubtedly, was in incredible emotional pain.
One of the most vivid memories I have of Larry was one of the most heartbreaking images I’ve ever witnessed. It’s the vision of this hard man, broken down after years of homelessness, coming into our office to tell us a story of having passed out one night on the subway, only to wake up to find a group of kids had set him on fire. Despite the incredibly inhumane cruelty of being set on fire in his sleep simply because he was homeless, Larry sadly blamed himself for being in that position. He didn’t seem to share our disgust that someone could disconnect so entirely from the fact that he was a human being.
But he wasn’t just a human being. Larry was a good and decent man who could be insightful, honest, gentle and kind. Make no mistake, when Larry was sober he was one of the most pleasant people you’d want to talk to, and like so many of our street homeless clients, he was a survivor in every sense of the word. There were often times that he fought valiantly for his independence and his sobriety only to ultimately lose the struggle of maintaining them.
I’m writing about Larry today because, aside from missing him and believing that he should be remembered, we also believe that he deserved better than the life he got. Above all else, he deserved a home instead of a shelter bed, or a back alley, or a seat on the train. But the fact is there are far too many people and far too many places that gave up on Larry a long time ago.
But that never happened at the Coalition. It means everything to me that I work in a place that never gave up on Larry. And for that I thank our Grand Central Food Program for continuing to feed him while he lived on the streets; our security, front desk and maintenance staff for being patient and kind to him on his not so good days; our Crisis staff for being there for him whenever he asked them to be; and especially our CAP staff who served him so faithfully, and were still at it, working on housing for him right up to the end of his life.
In spite of an intensely committed and capable staff, the reality is that we do not always get the results that we hope for, or more importantly, the results that the people we serve would hope for themselves. However, as Larry could attest to, we will not stop caring; we will not stop serving; and we will not give up. It happens in big and small ways every day in each and every one of our programs. It is what the Coalition is all about and we keep going because, as we all know, there are far too many people like Larry still out there who deserve better.
Published in Safety Net, Spring 2012