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AmeriCorps lessons in hard knocks


Seven months of AmeriCorps service have taught Bill L. Brown IV that homelessness is only a misstep away.

"When your life falls apart and there's nobody there for you, it's easy to become homeless," Mr. Brown said. "This experience has definitely opened my eyes and made me more understanding."

Mr. Brown, 26, joined AmeriCorps last fall as one of the first members of the domestic equivalent of the Peace Corps.

From several hundred possible projects, he chose Action for the Homeless, a state program that helps the needy obtain emergency, transitional or permanent housing.

After an intense training period, he was assigned to the Human Services Programs of Carroll County in Westminster, his hometown.

"I always wanted to change the world," said Mr. Brown, the only AmeriCorps worker in Carroll County. "I walked in here ready to set the world on fire and found a great way to learn about life."

One month later, he was the human services employee of the month -- an honor he accepted with modesty.

"They gave me clients they knew I could help, so I wouldn't lose my enthusiasm," he said with a laugh.

The images of men in crisis will stay with him for a lifetime, he said.

"I get attached and they stay on my mind," Mr. Brown said.

He remembers the hobo who rode a boxcar into Westminster, the 18-year-old whose parents locked him out of the house and the former prisoner who said he was lost with nowhere to go. Then, there was the guy with the knife.

"He walked into my office with a bag, whipped out an 8-inch knife and started to clean his nails," he said.

Mr. Brown diffused what he perceived as a potentially tense situation with a firm request to put the knife away. He got a smile and a "sure, man" for a response.

The homeless men he deals with have drifted into a Westminster shelter. Often, they have glued their lives back together, with his help. "I know I have made a difference," he said.

However, he never is sure if his efforts stick.

"I work with them for a couple of weeks and then I tell them I never want to see them back here again," he said. "That's not really true, though. I'm here if they run into problems."

Al Brown, who is not related to Bill Brown, meets monthly with the 22 AmeriCorps members who are working with the homeless across the state. The 22 have assisted more than 1,700 previously homeless people in the first seven months of the program, he said.

"Bill Brown is one of the best we have," said Mr. Brown, project manager at Action for the Homeless. "He has an outstanding record of placing people and of procuring additional funds for them. He reaches out to secondary resources and finds houses, furniture and transportation for people."

Bill Brown, one of more than 20,000 AmeriCorps members working at 1,000 sites across the country, earns an hourly wage, health insurance benefits and money for college tuition in exchange for 1,700 hours of service.

Members can chose from about 350 different programs in education, environment, public safety, health and human needs, said Wendy Grassi, spokeswoman for the Corporation for National and Community Service, parent organization to AmeriCorps.

"We have been wildly successful since we started in September," Ms. Grassi said. "This is not a make-work program, but one of real accomplishments. Our members have started a national dialogue on the importance of serving in the community, and they are seeing service as a lifelong commitment."

Bill Brown, who has been taking courses at Carroll Community College, hopes to become a teacher.

"Kids can be influenced early," he said. "I remember the teacher who came to my house and helped me study for a test. It sounds cheesy, but that always stuck with me. I would do the same thing."

The lessons learned as a counselor to the homeless also will remain with him.

Bill Brown said he was raised by "Ward and June Cleaver" from television's "Leave It to Beaver," but his AmeriCorps experience has shown him that "we don't all come from the Cleavers' house."

"Without my parents and people around to support me, I could become homeless," he said.

He has learned to address what is of primary importance first. During an initial interview with a homeless man, he will ask about food first.

"Joe told me he hadn't eaten for four days, so I made him a sandwich," he said. "Then, we talked about getting him help."

He recommends the men's shelter for those who want assistance. There, "we can try to stabilize life as soon as possible," Bill Brown said.

Once in the 30-bed shelter, residents must abide by the rules, including attendance at Alcoholics Anonymous meetings for those with alcohol addictions.

"If they are willing to stick with our program and look for a house and a job, we can find them a house and a job," Bill Brown said. "If they are willing to put in as much effort as we do, they can change their lives."

For those unwilling to change, he can offer an overnight in "a one hot and a cot" shelter.

Those men might not want his help, but he keeps his door open for them. He often will drive the human services van around the city trying to find a man he hasn't seen for a while.

The best days for Bill Brown are the few that the homeless shelters are empty.

He considers his AmeriCorps experience invaluable and lifelong.

He readily recommends it to any young adult and often discusses the advantages of community service with high school students.

"People close the doors on helping too often," he said. "I tell kids we are really good at figuring out how they can help."

Despite apparent success, supporters worry that congressional budget cutters may reduce the agency's $575 million budget by $210 million.

In a plea to the Senate Appropriations Committee on Wednesday, Eli J. Segal, chairman of the Corporation for National and Community Service, related several AmeriCorps success stories to illustrate that "national service works, and can become a model for reform effort."

"Giving hard-working Americans the chance to give a hand to their communities and earn help paying for college" is smart and patriotic, he said.

Bill Brown offers another reason to keep AmeriCorps alive and prospering.

"I hope AmeriCorps lasts years and years so I can say to my kids that I was a founding father," he said. "I want to take to my grave that I was one of the original members."

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