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Toy Soldier
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Roger Wade pays homage to the dedication, compassion, and persistence of outreach workers and counselors who work at the nation’s emergency shelters. He offers a vignette dramatizing the dangers they face on a daily basis and describes how they provide life-changing services to men and women experiencing homelessness.

The following story is my conjecture of what could have happened, given a myriad of possible dangers that counselors in an outreach program may confront. I have heard of injuries sustained by these men, not necessarily from the persons they are trying to help, but through related accidental scenarios. To relate them in a statistical format, the reader would most likely find it impressively factual, but nonetheless statistical. I therefore ask the reader’s forgiveness for the following dramatization in my attempt to portray the dedication these men have in fulfilling their humanitarian duties. In a broader sense, I am sure something very similar to what you are about to read has happened more than once in this county. In Insurance Circles, I think it’s called “The Law of Averages.”

Very few people in society know what an Emergency Shelter counselor really does. I’ve never read about it in the newspaper. If they did know, people would quickly forget it. There’s also a segment of a community’s makeup that is aware of the tragic hypocrisy of rampant homelessness in this country and, therefore, are interested enough to read about it. In return, they live the example of their forbearers’ American character, freely devoting time, energies, and money for the homeless men and women’s plights in the context of confusing present day American societal values.

An outreach counselor’s job of rendering early morning aid to a poor solitary homeless man who had “bunked out” under his bridge of choice the previous evening, isn’t always as simple as bungling the guy, with his few meager belongings into a van.

As an illustration, permit me to relate the events of a particular day of July 23, 2009. The counselors found a half-asleep older man straggled under a bridge amongst discarded food packaging, empty beer and pop cans, a half empty liquor bottle and assorted dirty shirts and underwear. The man was startled by the sudden hello from one of the counselors, and grabbed for a knife under his mattress, struggling to rise up from his stupor to cut his imagined attackers. The man was tall and probably powerful in his earlier years, but now could only waver off balance towards his enemies from a flashback from another time.

Before the two well-trained counselors could out maneuver and disarm their confused assailant, he waved his knife in a roundhouse lurch, slashing one of the counselor’s right arm. He was quickly disarmed by his compatriot’s quick response without hesitation on either side of them. Through strong and calm reassurances, Ken and Burke directed another homeless man toward their van for a chance at a better life, starting with the shelter they both worked for. The slashed arm was wrapped by an old shirt found in their van. The doctor would have to come later.

In the myriad of sayings that have been expounded upon over the millennia, such as “a job is a job” there are sometimes such metaphoric understatements that it becomes ludicrous to have the temerity to ever say it. Being an outreach counselor, at the particular emergency shelter I’m referring to, mostly aptly illustrates that fact.

The two counselors I write about are Ken and Burke, counselors in every sense of the word. When they’re not resituating the homeless, they conduct open-air meetings with the men and women who live in the shelter on a daily basis. As spokesmen, they focus their constituents on job placements, medical agencies that can help them, food and clothing vouchers, not to mention haircuts and a decent pair of shoes.

When a shelter resident reaches a certain point of stability, some of them being alcoholic or drug habitual users, and others mentally ill, these counselors, along with the aid of other staff members place them in a transitional mode of living. This may be a motel unit, or a modest apartment or efficiency, sometimes for quite a few months, until their recipients exert a societal adherence through keeping appointments with the agencies that can help them, along with their own conscious and deliberate avoidances of habits that have been injurious to them during their homeless years.

Like everything else on paper, including this one, it sounds good and feasible and progressive, until you arrive at the pitfalls. For example, a counselor who thought his client was going to “make it” gets a phone call one morning from the hotel manager. The client has been arrested for she doesn’t know what and his motel room has been totally trashed. Then, the counselor’s job of a different sort begins, a discouraging duty for him or her to clean up the motel room, putting it back in order.

Then there’s the going to court for some of their clients, trying to defend them in front of a judge by assuring the courts that if their man is given probation, they will redouble their efforts in making sure he keeps his medical, psychiatric appointments, drug counseling sessions, even if they have to drive him there themselves.

The pitfalls in a homeless man’s life, due to his forced lifestyle, are many – and correspond in like manner to a counselor’s job. Nonetheless, what each has accomplished for others, each in his own way, cannot be properly described in the English language. So, the two counselors I’ve told this story about, Ken and Burke, go on. They go forward, regardless of the injuries to their minds and bodies. And, like the poem Little Boy Blue, by Eugene Field, these two gentlemen – once boys of blue, their dusty little toy dogs and rusty toy soldiers – didn’t have to wait that long, they’ve been with them all along.

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HRC Resource
SAMHSA
2011
Rockville, MD
617-467-6014