Troy Leonard was waiting to die.
On a ship in the Gulf of Mexico — where he slung hammers and lugged wrenches as a support worker for offshore oil drillers — he started having trouble breathing. Then he started having chest pains.
He was having a heart attack. And to top it off, he was 200 miles off the coast of Texas.
A Coast Guard helicopter flew him to a hospital in Port Arthur, Texas. There, doctors worked on him. As is the case with patients undergoing such emergency procedures, he was semi-conscious. Conscious enough to hear the words that would echo in his head for years to come.
“I specifically remember listening to the heart surgeon say, ‘I don’t know how this guy is alive,’” Leonard said.
Leonard was wondering that, too. He was 45 years old, and he knew he was paying the price for a lifetime of alcohol, marijuana, cocaine and heroin.
“I was your stereotypical sailor,” Leonard said. “I would hit the beach and start popping tops. I always just lived in the moment. I didn’t have any savings, any retirement.”
But to say that Leonard — who was making upwards of $50,000 a year, and as a sailor had his room and board paid for — didn’t have any plan in life, wouldn’t quite be accurate. The plan just didn’t play out like he thought.
“I thought I would just work until the day I died,” Leonard said. “I didn’t know I would have some major medical event without dying. I couldn’t understand why I didn’t die.”
Eight months later — August 2007 — he still wasn’t dead, but Leonard thought he had perhaps arrived in purgatory.
He was about to spend his first night in the Lawrence Salvation Army homeless shelter.
“I’ve walked into lots of situations in life that were uneasy or didn’t feel right,” Leonard said. “But this was just another world. It was like walking on a different planet.”
It would be his world for the next 11 months.
Carol Taylor remembers the first time she met Troy Leonard. Like she does with many, she remembers more about what he didn’t have than what he did.
“He had lost his belief in himself,” said Taylor, who is the case manager for the Salvation Army’s Project Able program. “Troy had a lot of skills and abilities, but he no longer believed he did.”
If there’s a single commonality about the people who walk into the Salvation Army seeking help — and maybe there isn’t — this loss of self-belief may be it.
People who walk into the shelter need lots of things. A roof, a job, a hot meal, a warm blanket. The list can go on and on. What they usually get first, though, is a hope surrogate.
“They’re at a point they never thought they would be,” Taylor said of first-time homeless shelter guests. “The person working with them has to believe that change is possible for them because they’re the one telling them that they can get this back. You have to hold on to the hope until they believe they can have it again.”
Along the way, Taylor will give more than hope. Usually, she gives a list. A concrete, doable list. Helping them achieve a goal early is important.
Just get through this list.
“They’re in a place where they have to focus on just getting through this day, just getting through this week,” Taylor said. “Anything longer than just a couple of days is going to be overload for them.”
The list is usually full of addresses and directions to social service agencies like Health Care Access or the Lawrence Workforce Center. Oftentimes the list comes with bus passes. Sometimes Taylor will make the trip too, but not often. She said the Salvation Army program stresses expectations.
“It comes back to not only do I believe you can make change, I have the expectations that you have the skills to do that,” Taylor said. “If you come in and say you need housing, and I do all the paperwork and tell you not to worry about it, I haven’t taught you the skills you need the next time you’re faced with a difficult situation.”
Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.
In the case of Troy Leonard, Taylor had undertaken what sounds like the most unusual of tasks: she was teaching a sailor how to fish.
Leonard remembers the first time he met Taylor. He was tired. It was the morning after his first night at the shelter.
“I didn’t sleep at all that night,” Leonard said.
You would think it would be all the weight-of-the-world type of worries that would keep a man up at a homeless shelter. But Leonard said finding a way to overcome those major disappointments — another day of job rejections, another day of waiting to hear about an apartment — is easier than overcoming the little things. The constant smell of unbathed men, the incessant snoring of the man on the top bunk and — Leonard’s personal peeve — the daily routine of being kicked out of the shelter at 7:45 a.m. every day of the week. A life of never sleeping in.
“Every morning, you would wake up and ask yourself how you could get in this situation,” Leonard said.
For Leonard, he got in his Lawrence situation via De Soto. After Port Arthur, Texas, he stayed with his brother and sister-in-law and their triplets in Lenexa for about four months while he recovered from the heart surgery that required five stents be placed in clogged arteries.
He then got an apartment in De Soto where he worked at a factory. But that job then disappeared, as did any money he had. He talked to a social worker in De Soto, who gave him a week’s worth of rent. But she told him the small town didn’t have the services he needed. The two closest places that did were the bottoms of Kansas City and Lawrence.
The choice was not hard, although the trip was a bit tiring. Leonard can tell you how many folks will pick up a homeless hitchhiker between De Soto and Lawrence: none. He walked to the front door of the Salvation Army.
Eleven months later, he walked out the same door, headed to a Lawrence apartment that he had found through a connection he made at church. Now, he speaks a gospel-like message.
“If you will do your part, they will take you by the hand and literally give you everything you need to get you back to where you want to be,” Leonard said. “But you have to do your part.”
Leonard did his part. Today, he’s dressed just like what he is — a working man. Blue scrubs are partially covered by an insulated flannel shirt. Near one side is the working man’s daily drug — 44 ounces of iced cola. On the other side is a John Deere cap that he takes off during conversation.
For eight months, he’s been employed as a certified nurse’s aide at a local nursing home. He got the education for the job through a state vocational rehabilitation program. The government program provided him free tuition, a car to get to class and work, and enough money to cover the first month’s worth of auto insurance.
He’s still taking classes through Neosho County Community College. He plans to complete his Licensed Practical Nursing training in 18 months.
So Leonard did his part, but he admits that he didn’t always. He remembers having a minimum-wage job while at the shelter. He would make a little money and rent a cheap hotel room so he could drink, something the Salvation Army as a strict dry shelter doesn’t tolerate. His drinking and drug use also caused him to have a run-in with the law.
“They were really the ones that told me I had to quit, and then I realized I couldn’t,” Leonard said.
Leonard has now been sober for a year, he said.
Leonard brings the failures up because he knows there are people who believe the homeless don’t do enough to help themselves. And he admits he’s seen “plenty” of bus passes and food stamps sold for booze.
But just as quickly, Leonard adds a refrain that floats through homeless shelters everywhere like hymnal music fills Sunday churches.
“I would just tell the people who are driving down Mass. or the business owners who are looking at panhandlers,” Leonard said, “don’t think you couldn’t be there in a heartbeat.”
These days, though, Leonard’s main message is more upbeat. Now that he’s out of the shelter, he wants others to know it is possible. He tells people to not let their fears be brick walls. When asked, he tells people about his renewed faith in God, and — above all — he tells people to do their part.
Taylor, who says she has the best job in the world, says Leonard is still doing his part.
“We’ve had an impact on Troy, but he’s going to pass that along,” Taylor said. “That’s how it works.
“We believe in one change at a time.”