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  • There was a time in my life when I was a volunteer outreach counselor at a homeless shelter in Tampa. Like many people, I had seen the ragged men holding up their hand-lettered signs at highway exits and wondered what their real story was. I went to investigate for a few weeks and wound up staying eight years.

    An outreach counselor processes food and clothing vouchers, offers a shoulder to cry on and sometimes acts as a lightning rod for rage and frustration. I showed up my first day bright and cheerful and ready to change the world. I did not get off to an auspicious start. My very first client handed me his clothing voucher and I squinted at the address line.

    I: I’m sorry, Mr. Harris, I’m having trouble reading your handwriting. What number Bridgelawn Street do you live on?

    He: It don’t say “lawn,” it say “down.”

    I: I stand corrected. What number Bridgedown Street do you live on?

    He: I don’t live ON Bridgedown Street.I live under the bridge down the street, fool!

    I: Bridge. Down. Street. Oh.

    Fool. That I eventually improved was due to the fact that I had expert teachers. The other counselor on my shift was a fallen angel named Dennis. He was a retired attorney who had often taken the sleazy route to courtroom victory and was now making amends. The line to consult him often stretched down the street, and when he couldn’t dispense legal advice he would frequently reach for his wallet. You have no idea how much a man’s life can be changed by a simple pair of work boots.

    Our supervisor was a magician named Morgan. He had come to Florida from Michigan to flee a messy divorce. Working as a housepainter, he fell off a scaffold one day and broke his back. With no insurance, he became homeless and spent two years sleeping in a church doorway on a square of cardboard. By the time he was hired by the shelter, he knew the system inside out and had mastered countless ways to game it. I frequently came to him with what I thought were hopeless cases and he would tell me that there was nothing he could do to help, but, invariably, just as I was leaving his office I would hear:” Hold on a minute.” and he would pull yet another rabbit from his shopworn hat.

    I would be an even bigger fool than Mr. Harris supposed if I were to make airy pronouncements about the state of the homeless in America. But I did get to know the people in one shelter in Tampa, Florida and here is what I found: Some of them were the noblest folks I ever met, especially the elderly women who were taking over the rearing of the young children of their drug-addicted or incarcerated sons and daughters. Others were craven vultures that wouldn’t hesitate to take food from the mouths of babes and had demonstrated that by doing so often. But the vast majority were frightened and confused, wondering how they got into the situation in which they found themselves and obsessing mightily over the single mistake that had brought every domino in their lives crashing down. And then there were the children. I have seen many chilling sights in my day, but nothing like the light behind the eyes of once-hopeful young boys flickering out, until there’s nothing but a steely stare to show the world

    I liked my volunteer work immensely. It seemed too good a situation to last, and it didn’t. A new, business-oriented Board of Directors took over. They treated the homeless not as a sacred trust but a commodity. The fund-raising got ever slicker, while the services offered became ever fewer. Morgan, his immune system long compromised by life on the street, caught pneumonia and died. Dennis followed suit shortly thereafter. When he told me he’d been diagnosed with a fatal case of cirrhosis of the liver, I blurted out, “But you told me you only had one drink a night!” “I did,” he replied, “but it was a very, very large glass.”

    With my friends gone, I knew it was time for me to leave as well. Had I been a better person I would have remained for the sake of my charges, but eight years is a long time. Fresher blood was needed, and it no longer coursed in my veins. I think I did some good and perhaps even turned some lives around.

    Other causes have since become more fashionable and the celebrity set has gravitated elsewhere. There are times when I’d like to move on, too, but the eyes of those children won’t let me. Those accusing eyes haunt my sleep and in the light of day challenge me to do more and do it better. How can I refuse them?

    Image source: FDR Memorial in Washington, D.C.
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