Magazine article The Masthead

Editorial Writing Has Nothing on the Homeless Shelter

Magazine article The Masthead

Editorial Writing Has Nothing on the Homeless Shelter

Article excerpt

I've spent the last 16 years trying to top some of the experiences I had in my first full time job out of college: helping to run a 108-bed men's homeless center outside of Buffalo, N.Y.

I haven't succeeded very often.

The three years I worked there, I met people with every problem imaginable, almost always with some form of substance abuse and occasional mental instability thrown in. But the men (and the occasional woman, after we added five beds for them) were more than the sum of their difficulties: they were often intelligent, articulate, kind, struggling, hurting human beings. They were also, very often, highly manipulative sociopaths.

From the beginning, I had to learn how to sort out those with potential for rehabilitation from those who would lie every time they moved their lips. We referred to this necessary learning process as being thrown to the lions. When a staff member was new, the clients would practically ring the dinner bell.

I handled many of the admission interviews, and the first man I spoke to for possible admission seemed strangely agitated. I quickly figured out that he was far too mentally unstable to be suitable for the shelter, and I told him he couldn't stay. He stood up and became angry and threatening. I stood up, too, and ordered him out of my office. To my surprise, he left.

After a few minutes I went to the receptionist and told her not to send me people who were overtly psychotic. She replied, "Well, it could have been worse. After all, I took away the axe he was carrying before sending him to you."

Some of the men I've never forgotten. There was Al, who found his way to the center after being released from prison in Illinois, where he was sentenced at the age of 16 for killing his mother's boyfriend. Al, who was 6-foot-4-inches tall, had spent his 17-year sentence lifting weights, and after I admitted him he appointed himself my unofficial bodyguard. When ever a client raised his voice toward me, Al would usually appear not far away, keeping a watchful eye out.

One day, when I arrived at work, I overheard a fellow counselor, Pete Panzarella, say, "Al, put the car down. Put the car down, please, Al." Al was helping Pete fix a fiat on his Fiat by lifting the car with one hand and spinning the nuts off the tire with his other hand.

There was Roy, an illiterate American Indian in his 50s whom I spent a year teaching to read before concluding that alcohol had damaged his brain so much that he would never learn more than a few letters. Still, just being able to pick out letters made him so proud I never felt the effort was wasted.

There was a published poet with a master's degree from Columbia University who never stayed sober longer than a few weeks. …

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