Trying to help Terry


TERRY WEARS nine jackets, atop the next. Army jackets, pea coats, denim jackets, down coats, ski jackets -- and underneath them all he wears a striped jersey. The sleeves are removed on some jackets from the shoulder down to allow easier arm movement.

He does not remove them indoors. Instead, he releases various objects from his thousand pockets. He's a great collector of items gleaned from the trash: bits of wire, broken headphones, batteries, busted tools. He can fix anything, or transform one thing into another with his wide, strong fingers.

He carries three enormous bags with him everywhere he goes: two duffel bags (one black and one gray) and an old blue rucksack, which is torn in many places. They each weigh between 30 and 60 pounds; I can lift only the gray one. The bags are extremely valuable to Terry; he will not leave them unguarded, not even to use the restroom. The bags accompany him everywhere. Inside the bags are irreplaceable treasures: His dead father's birth certificate. Family photo albums. Newspapers and art supplies.

In fact, he is a gifted artist who has studied electronics and engineering in three states. If you give him a sheet of paper and some colored chalk, a miracle will occur in a matter of minutes: The paper will become a gorgeous design, a remarkable face or a fire-breathing dragon. The strokes are surprisingly light given Terry's size and strength.

The world of humans

When it comes to the world of humans, Terry's gifts are harder to appreciate. Often he is unclear about the date or the time. He dislikes crowds. His thoughts are jumbled and hard to follow; he is easily frustrated and has trouble making himself understood.

Soup kitchens and shelters are difficult for Terry to use for these reasons; they are densely populated, time-specific and procedure-focused.

Terry has been homeless for four years, following a family tragedy that occurred in his hometown. He has no income and no job. Mostly he sleeps in the streets, and only sometimes in emergency overnight shelters.

Terry needs help applying for Social Security benefits, food stamps, medical assistance and public housing. A Social Security application can be taken over the phone, if one calls and arranges it for three weeks in the future and then makes sure the homeless person is in one's office when the worker calls. That's not as easy as it may sound.

As for the state programs, the mountain does not come to Muhammad. This probably means I must take Terry to a social-services office myself at 7:45 a.m. and hang around for three or four hours. Terry has trouble with buses; it is difficult to maneuver three 60-pound bags on a bus in snow or rain or cold.

Did I mention his asthma? His high blood pressure? Oh, and public housing! Terry can look forward to receiving it in perhaps three to five years. That's if he applies tomorrow.

Lauren Siegel is a social worker with Health Care for the Homeless.

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