2012 OTTY Awards: Once Homeless, Now Homeless Shelter Volunteer

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Thomas Williams, once a client of at the Holy Trinity Episcopal Church's s homeless shelter, volunteers overnight there at least one night a week. Photo by Andrew Schwartz.

By Max Sarinsky

Thomas Williams has been through plenty of tough times, and he doesn’t want to forget them. After enduring a decade-long stretch of homelessness, Williams now volunteers at the Holy Trinity Episcopal Church on the Upper East Side—where he resided for six months—spending most of his shift just a few yards from the cot he once slept on.
Williams’ homeless spell ended four years ago when he moved into a city transitional housing facility. He has since worked off and on and currently holds a part-time job selling newspapers. He said that working Thursday nights at Holy Trinity helps him appreciate the steps he’s taken since his stay there. “It keeps me humble,” he said.
The walls began to cave in on Williams in the mid-1990s with the confluence of several traumatic events, including a divorce, prolonged unemployment and the death of his oldest son. He soon found himself without a home and spent most of the next decade jumping between friends’ couches, shelter beds and subway platforms. He developed a mental index of public showers and kitchens throughout the city.
It wasn’t until a homeless friend died in the cold that Williams decided it was time for a more permanent fix. He registered for city assistance and was temporarily placed at Holy Trinity until housing became available.
“I was too proud to come to one of these places to get help,” Williams said. “You’ve got to swallow your pride after a while.”
Williams dreamed of playing in the NFL as a child—a dream he came very close to realizing, playing fullback for two years in the Canadian Football League and receiving an invitation to try out for the Cincinnati Bengals. Now 51, he’s scaled back his ambitions. He said that the choice to return to Holy Trinity in 2008 as a volunteer was an easy one, and that he wouldn’t trade his gig for anything.
“It definitely gives my life meaning,” he said. “I’ll be here till they put me in the pine box.”
Mark Roshkind, Holy Trinity’s shelter site coordinator, praised Williams’ commitment and dedication, noting that “on numerous occasions, [he] has singlehandedly enabled the shelter site to remain open, typically providing overnight service two and three times weekly.”
Williams added that as a former homeless man, he is able to empathize with the clients and understand their needs. “I put myself in their shoes every time I’m here,” he said. “They’re just trying to find a place to call home.”
On a recent Thursday evening, Williams supervised a group of 13 men who were staying at the shelter. While many of the clients mingled and watched a Nigerian film, Williams stayed largely to himself, answering their questions and assisting with cots, sheets and kitchen appliances. When one of the clients spilled Dr. Pepper all over the floor, Williams calmly pointed him to a nearby towel rack. “I’ve seen worse than this before,” he said as they wiped away the mess. n

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