After I reported on the passing of Bill Carter, the respected and loved leader of the Theodore Young Community Center, I said to myself - the testimonials about him understated his greatness. I just RE-read this article about Bill--written almost 20 years ago that appeared in the New York Times. Readers of this article will have a better appreciation as to why so many of us are devastated by Bill's passing. Bill, who passed away on Dr. Martin Luther King's birthday, turned his life around. He helped hundreds, probably thousands of young people become productive members of society. He enhanced programs for our youth, senior citizens, x drug addicts--people who had a hard time with their lives. He changed people's lives for the better. He was able to relate to the affluent and poor, to people who were CEOs of major companies and to the homeless. Since he came from the streets he understood what it meant to be out of luck and out of money. And, he had a personality that was second to none. He made people feel great about themselves and helped them reach their potential. Bill became a role model in our community. His life will always inspire. And, he will be difficult (probably impossible) to replace. Bill proved that society should never give up on anyone --and it's never too late for anyone to change for the better.
From the Streets to the Classroom
New York Times
By JOSEPH BERGER
Published: September 15, 1996
When William Carter started doctoral classes last week at Columbia University's School of Social Work, it was hard to imagine that not so many years ago he was homeless and slept on subway platforms and park benches.
It is hard even for him to imagine.
''In some ways it seems like a long time ago and in some ways it feels like it was yesterday,'' he said.
Still, in the last six years Mr. Carter, 42, has pulled himself from the slough of drunken binges, makeshift beds and jail and has swiftly acquired a college education and a master's degree, not to mention an apartment. The methodical schedule of a student has been a satisfying contrast to the aimless descent that had lasted on and off for 12 years.
''I would go into a place like McDonald's and go to sleep,'' he said. ''I would go into a bar at night and find me a corner and go to sleep. The seasons changed and I never noticed. Time had no meaning. There was no distinction between day and night, winter, fall, summer, spring. There was a sense of timelessness, despair. My life was centered on what time the liquor store opened.''
In some ways Mr. Carter's story is a model for rescuing people from homelessness and addiction; in other ways it is a mystery that depends on the singularity of Mr. Carter's life and character. He is a child of West Virginia's mountains, raised by a formidable grandmother who gave him what he describes as ''an impeccable value system'' and an esteem for learning. The sour rebellion that lasted into his mid-30's was his own, he says, but when he resolved to reshape his life the lessons of his upbringing were there to be tapped.
At the same time, Mr. Carter was fortunate that when he completed a six-month sentence in the Westchester County Jail for selling drugs, there was a program in Westchester that made it easy for welfare recipients to take classes at the local community college -- a state program that has since been cut back by four-fifths in the drive to make recipients work, rather than allow them to study -- and there was a shelter staffed by counselors who also had lived his experience and come out the other end. These things do not help many addicts. But they helped Mr. Carter.
His social work adviser at Columbia said that while few homeless people rise to the level of Ph.D. students, Mr. Carter's recovery should come as no surprise.
''Our whole profession is based on the notion that that is a possibility,'' said the adviser, Judith Marks, the coordinator of special programs. Columbia officials said the school has had a number of students over the years who had overcome addictions and other problems and whose ordeals drew them to social work.
Mr. Carter is an imposing man, 6 foot 5 and 340 pounds, with a survivor's ability to chuckle at his follies but with a voice whose sometimes sad edge betrays the bruises of his past. His parents split up when he was a baby and his mother migrated permanently to Peekskill, N.Y. There is a rose-tinted quality to his memories of his grandmother's home in Prince, W.Va., a hamlet he remembers as cradled in a green valley embraced by mountains. ''It was just like an explosion of nature saluting you in the morning,'' he said.
As in many country places too small for ghettoes to form, blacks like himself and whites got along, he said. Racial animus was something he became familiar with later.
''People kind of helped each other out, so when the vegetables grew, and someone had a bumper crop of string beans and squash or potatoes or something, they would just come by and say, 'Go ahead! Take some stuff from my garden.' ''
He was a fine student as a youngster, but his grades began to plummet toward the end of high school, around the time his mother died of emphysema brought on by her smoking and aggravated by drinking. He started West Virginia State College, he said, but was drawn more by partying than classes and soon dropped out. He became what he calls ''a hell raiser.''
''After visiting New York and being exposed to racial injustices, I had grown a big Afro, I was loud about my blackness, I was an advocate of black power. Plus I liked to partake of the grape. I would end up getting half-sloshed and getting into arguments and it was usually racially motivated fights with some real hard rednecks.''
Worried about his safety, his grandmother shipped him to Peekskill to live with his older sister, Jennifer. He got a job as an orderly at the nearby Franklin D. Roosevelt Veterans Administration Hospital. Although he drank heavily -- ''I was a wino,'' he said -- and at times shot heroin, he managed to hold the job for 10 years. One day, suffering from withdrawal-related shaking and hallucinations, he lost the will to work.
His sister and friends tried to pull him out of his spiral. It did not work. ''You have an inability to hear what people say to you,'' Mr. Carter remembered. Eventually, he said, Jennifer ''had to step back and let whatever happened, happen.''
Without a job, and with relatives no longer willing to cushion him during his slide, he began a long spell of homelessness.
''It was a natural progression,'' Mr. Carter said. ''I went from apartments, to rooms, to homes of friends. Then I went to abandoned buildings. Then I went to park benches. Then I went anywhere I could lay my head. As the bottom fell out of my life, it became less important to me where I was sleeping or whether I had any place to go. You keep lowering your expectations until you reach a point where you don't expect things to change. You don't care.''
He does not blame his mother for his problems. ''I'm sure that somewhere along the line there were some Freudian implications with my father breaking camp, my mother leaving, but I never remember feeling it,'' he said. He does wonder, however, if there was a genetic element. Not only was his mother alcoholic, but his father died of a heart condition hastened by drinking.
On July 5, 1984, he recalls, he woke up under bushes in a park outside Peekskill and decided he did not want to die. He joined a rehabilitation program. But weeks before he was finished, he quit to be with his grandmother, who was mortally ill. When he returned to Peekskill, he took a job as a cleaning crew manager at the Indian Point nuclear plant. He got an apartment, shared with a girlfriend. While he never resumed drinking, he started smoking crack.
Within weeks, he lost the job, broke up with his girlfriend, sold everything in his apartment and was homeless once more, sometimes sleeping on subway platforms in New York City to be near a drug supplier. To support his new habit, he became a drug dealer. In 1990, he pleaded guilty to an attemped sale. In the Westchester County Jail, he resolved again to change his life. This time, the resolve stuck.
Paroled, he was sent to Open Arms, a 38-bed men's shelter sponsored by Westchester churches and synagogues, where he stayed for eight months. Ron Mitchell, the director, said that Open Arms's virtues were that it is small and, in addition to meals and shelter -- ''three hots and a cot'' -- offers a staff studded with veterans of Alcoholics Anonymous and homelessness as well as educational counselors.
The counselors steered Mr. Carter, who was tired of dead-end jobs and confident he had more to offer, into a workfare program, then called ''Moms on the Move'' but also open to some men, which enrolled him in Westchester Community College. Dr. Margaret P. Olson, the two-year college's director of special student services, said he got straight A's except for a B in psychology. ''His flip answer about the B is that 'it keeps me humble,' '' she said.
Mr. Carter felt drawn to social work because, he said, ''Every person who has been through hell wants to become a person who will help other people come through hell.'' He received a full scholarship to Dominican College in Rockland County, which offers a bachelor's degree in social work, and graduated at the top of his class. He was accepted with advanced standing into Columbia, where he completed his master's and received a state social work certificate. Impressed professors at Dominican have hired him to teach a course in group dynamics, but he also returns to Open Arms to counsel homeless men and tutors at the nearby Coachman Hotel, a residence for homeless families.
Meredith Hanson, a professor of social work who supervised Mr. Carter's field work at Columbia, said Mr. Carter had the elusive ability to advise clients without having to remind them about his own recovery. And teachers at all three schools praised him for an intelligence and iron will that may have been muffled by his drinking and drug use but that were there to be reawakened.
Mr. Carter, who is pursuing a Ph.D. because he wants to teach aspiring social workers and other professionals full-time, says that sometimes ''I feel kind of small'' in a prestigious school like Columbia but ''that passes real quick.''
''Life is funny,'' he said. ''Millions of people wish they could have the chance to start all over again. For me it did happen. Sometimes I think my life is predestined because I never had these type of plans. It just happened. So my job is just to show up and let the process continue.''