Tom Burnham: Memoir — “At the Shelter,” “Accommodating Trans,” “High School Grifters of the Nixon Era”

At the Shelter

Such is the issue these days. When rural life on the downlow breaks down.

One of the seldom discussed demographics among persons, homeless, is the number of gay adults. Actually, I shouldn’t call them gay as many don’t identify as such. In the Peter & Paul shelter, these are frequently men who have sex with men from rural parts. To them, ‘gay’ translates to an urban lifestyle they don’t identify with in the least. They look like folks from their hometowns. They aren’t into fashion. They like country music. They have rural accents. They would no sooner walk into a gay bar than Neiman Marcus. They have no currency in that culture. They are from the ‘country’ but are estranged from family and their home communities out of rejection and frequently a sense of shame and self-loathing.

In the winter of 85/86, the antibody test came out that could determine a person’s HIV status before the onset of an opportunistic infection. Prior to that, a person only learned their status through the occurrence of a disease like Kaposi’s sarcoma, toxoplasmosis or sudden, significant weight loss. Such an onset was typically followed by death within the next 9 to 12 months. That winter, a number of men got themselves tested and learned their positive status. This was terrifying to them as there was no way to predict to the course of the disease. There was so much still unknown and the protease inhibitors were undreamed of. It would be another decade before they would come about.

Many of those men moved on to points unknown. Several headed back home. Some split for the west coast. Within the next six years all that maintained contact with us were dead. One who stuck around was Bill. Bill was the youngest of 14 siblings and he came to St Louis from rural Arkansas. Bill was atypical in some respects particularly in that, in spite of his rural origins, he had decidedly feminine affects notably in his speech. He had been rejected by his family except for one sister who would speak to him occasionally behind her husband’s back. He wanted nothing to do with Bill either.

It actually took Bill a year or so to understand that having HIV and AIDS were not quite the same thing. Again, there was so much still unknown. While he was healthy, we helped him find some work and get set up in an apartment. Aside from us, at PPCS, there were a couple fierce public health nurses who made it their mission to advocate for him. Over the next few years there were a lot of challenges including Bill himself. He wasn’t always the best client/patient/advocate on his own behalf.

Around the turn of the 80’s into the 90’s, he went full blown. His T cell count seriously dropped and his viral load soared. He developed thrush, seborrheic dermatitis and shingles. At the onset, we helped him apply for Social Security as there was no way he could work. He was turned down. There was not yet a legal criteria for recognizing AIDS as a disability. We helped him appeal. We helped him appeal again. At the time, he was living in an apartment. Pulling together money for rent and utilities was always an ongoing challenge. Because of his utter lack of an immune system, hitting the streets was not an option. When he was healthy enough, he volunteered at the shelter and our meals program.

In late December of 90, he was turned down for his disability again. After the beginning of the year, he didn’t turn up as expected for some volunteer work. He didn’t have a phone so some other volunteers drove to his apartment and found him dead. He had been that way for a few days. He had dehydrated himself, ran out his electrolytes and suffered a heart attack. The volunteers called the police who summoned the medical examiner who came and collected his remains. The volunteers were present when the medical examiner staff zipped the bag and put it in the back of their truck.

Bill’s family claimed the body. When we tried to learn about arrangements, they denied he was dead even though it was our volunteers that found him and watched as the ME took him away. A week later his one sister called to apologize to us for the way we were treated. I never minded that nearly so much as the way they treated Bill although I didn’t say that to her but it certainly went through my mind. We held our own memorial service at Sts Peter & Paul attended by many friends of Bill’s. His family wanted nothing to do with him when he was alive and didn’t have the decency or courage to face the people who did.

Bill was a funny guy with a delightfully wicked, mordant sense of humor. He was quick with a clever retort. He was tall, rangy and kept a brushy moustache that covered his mouth. He always wore blue jeans and a green quilted down vest and was topped with a grey Greek fisherman’s cap.



Accommodating Trans

Late one dreary, rainy Sunday evening in the early 90’s, I received a call at home from the homeless hotline supervisor. I immediately knew this would be out of the ordinary because she didn’t typically work weekends. She was almost certainly calling me from her home.

I wasn’t disappointed.

She was calling to ask would Peter & Paul accept a male to female transsexual? (Although the term ‘transgender’ did exist it wasn’t yet in common usage.) ‘Chris’ had been living and working as a woman for years. She developed a drinking problem, lost control of her finances and became homeless. She still maintained her job where no one knew she had been born male. She had been referred to and turned away from a women’s shelter and subsequently no other women’s shelter would even receive the referral. Although she had undergone years of hormone therapy, she had not had reassignment surgery. I told the supervisor we would accept her. I drove down to the shelter to explain the situation to my staff and personally receive Chris.

George and Will were the on duty staff that night. Both were Vietnam vets. George was army. Bill was a marine. George was a one time resident of the shelter. He completely fell apart when his wife and daughter were killed in a collision with a drunk driver. He came through our shelter, completely pulled himself together, got a good job and worked for several years, living in his own place while occasionally volunteering in the shelter. The company he worked for went out of business at a time I was looking for a staff person. George was a natural fit.

Will worked full time for the VA and part time for me. He was aiming to retire with 40 years of government service and the commensurate pension. Completely self-possessed, in 20 years I never once heard him raise his voice even in the most challenging situations. He was very observant and could triage any crisis. The kind of guy who could easily supervise an disaster scene.

I asked them both into the shelter office and closed the door. I explained the situation, that a trans woman had been turned down by the women’s shelters. We were going to accommodate her. We would make adjustments to our usual processes to meet her needs. She would otherwise not be treated any differently than any other residents. No announcements were going to be made to the general population. If anyone asked, staff were to reply along the lines of, ‘everyone here is considered male in the eyes of the law’ and leave it at that. Regardless, Chris was not to be directly spoken of with any of the other residents. Staff were to see that she had reasonable privacy when she needed to use the restroom or shower.

She arrived a little while later. She was wearing a dress and the rain had smeared her make up. She was nervous and upset at the course of her day. It’s an understatement to say it was an ordeal. She didn’t yet know what to expect from us. I told her we would do our best to meet her needs and asked her to, please be patients and inform us when we fall short. I gave her my personal, home phone number, should she feel the need to report something. (She never once used it.)

Chris was a 60ish and had been living as a woman for over 25 years. She wasn’t model material on one hand, but she wasn’t ugly either. She wore dresses or skirts every day, even while in the shelter. She changed into pajamas and a robe late every evening and slept on a cot alongside 59 men. Most of our volunteers were gone by 9 each evening and simply assumed she was another volunteer. If any of my staff gave her pause or cause for concern, she never brought it to my attention. It turned out that Chris was a veteran too. She had been in the air force as a young man. This became a source for teasing as she, George and Will argued over the superior natures of their branch of service. It was all meant and taken in fun even as both George and Will argued the air force was just the ‘right place’ for Chris. She was in our shelter for a couple months before entering our transitional housing program also located in the shelter. She completed that program, moving into her own apartment from the shelter. In all she had been with us for close to six months. During her stay at Pater & Paul she was a model resident. She remained in touch for about a year. Later, I ran into her when she was working for another agency in the network.

When I first started volunteering in the shelter, back in 1985, we had a transvestite staying with us. (That was the language of the time.) Quinn wasn’t trying to pass as a woman but wore colorful, frilly blouses, a lot of make up and the occasional skirt. Quinn was also a heavy drug user. Some of the residents gave him a hard time but there was none of that when Chris was with us. I won’t say there was total acceptance but no one challenged me/us on our decision to accommodate a transgender woman over 25 years ago. To my knowledge, no resident challenged Chris on her presence or identity. Today, such accommodation is, at least on paper, mandated by HUD regulations. How well it is practiced is another question altogether. I was and remain proud about how my staff responded to the situation.

I am only fairly certain we have since accommodated at least one trans male. I received an inquiry as to whether we would. I told them I didn’t even want to know. If they had such a person in need to just make the referral and we’ll go from there. Sexual orientation and identity are significant factors among persons, homeless, particularly among youth. Many are still kicked out and cut off by unaccepting parents. Those youth also find it difficult coping in mainstream shelters. They are naturally sensitive and instinctively on guard. They are typically unaccustomed to being among a crowd of adults particularly adults with the baggage of mental illness and substance abuse.

In the last 35 years, there has been a lot of research into post traumatic stress. What is needed is research into unabated, chronic stress born out of poverty, abuse and neglect. This is the background of so many we serve. This is doubly true for throw away kids who endure great stresses in their formative years.



Darby Gillis and Dub Richardson

Darby Gillis was a recovering alcoholic. He was a well-read guy, always had a book. He had come into the shelter, not long from a treatment program. He was working on his aftercare. He was going to no less than three AA meetings a week. He had a sponsor. It didn’t take him long to find a job although it was only part time. In his off time he was collecting scrap metals from dumpsters and alleys. We brought him into our transitional housing program. He was an open book. You didn’t have to go searching for him to account for himself. His route sheet, check stubs, savings account were always produced on schedule. He was even showing us the receipts from the recycling business. He was actually pushing a cart across the Eads Bridge because a recycler on the east side was paying a few cents more per pound. We had a lot of confidence that he would make it to housing.

One night, he didn’t show up at the shelter. Very out of character but not a particularly unusual occurrence. The guys who are challenges can surprise you just as the guys who are diligent and purposeful about their recovery. The next day, a couple detectives came to the door. They were looking for next of kin information for Darby. The day before, he was collecting scrap with Dub Richardson. Dub was a long time player. Not a particularly bad guy but an opportunistic sneak. You didn’t want to leave anything of value unattended when he was around. He had been in and out of the shelter. I never connected the two of them. They just seemed cut from different bolts of cloth.

They were in an empty building in north St Louis, ripping out copper wiring and plumbing lines. Darby cut into a live wire and was electrocuted. He was still connected to the wire shuddering from the voltage when Dub tried to pull him off. The shock nearly killed Dub as well. Darby was killed instantly. Dub was in ICU and the detectives were saying he stood a real chance of being charged with second degree murder because Darby had been killed during the commission of a felony. I didn’t say so but it certainly went through me mind that the charge was obscene. All the more so when one of the detectives mentioned Dub wouldn’t be charged with breaking and entering because the building was open.

I had to empty Darby’s locker and pack it up to ship to his mother in Jackson, Mississippi. I wrote her a letter telling her how sorry I was for her loss. That everyone here thought highly of Darby. Among his belongings was a book, his current read. It was on Greek philosophers, Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. Not exactly what you might expect in the possessions of a man, homeless, but that was Darby.

I contacted a columnist from the local daily and told him the story. He said he would check into it. A week later his column appeared detailing all the above and basically challenging the notion that Dub should be charged with 2nd degree murder. TV news picked up on it and it became to local cause of the day. Within a week the prosecuting attorney announced no charges would be brought. I don’t know if it was because of the wrongness of making such a charge or the realization that the state would be responsible for his healthcare if they kept him as his nervous system was pretty well shot and he was confined to a wheel chair. In the end, I wasn’t even sure I had done him a favor.


Dub recovered sufficiently from his near electrocution and went back to his unhealthy ways. I never got the lowdown on what set his next act in motion. He was thrown out of a second story window and smashed both legs permanently putting him in a wheelchair. Last I knew he was in a long term, residential care facility.


High School Grifters of the Nixon Era

This was 1972-3 — few years ahead of the setting of the movie Dazed and Confused.

Always up for big parties, we took to reserving picnic areas in local parks for what we dubbed “Electric Ice Cream Socials.” These were basically large pot parties sometimes involving other intoxicants. Sort of a takeoff of Tom Wolfe’s Electric Koolaid Acid Test. Anyone with their ear to the countercultural ground got the reference but the straight world hadn’t a clue. These socials sometimes involved 75 to 100 people. Information was spread by word of mouth at school. This came to the attention to one of our teachers who began asking questions. We played innocent and made like good, wholesome, responsible teenagers working together to ‘give kids something to do and get them off the streets’. She bought the whole nine yards. Turns out, her husband was pastor of a nearby church which had an activity hall. She offered us the banquet hall. For free. All we had to do was leave it in the condition we found it. We would have musician friends come in and perform. We also rented Marx Brothers movies as the hall came with a 16 millimeter projector and screen. We charged 50 cents admission and after we had a few dollars, we were running to the grocery store next door and bought coffee, sugar, creamer, bagels, cream cheese and doughnuts which were sold.

At the same time, a couple of us were doing peer counseling on a acid rescue type hotline service in a so-called drop in center known as Grok, from the Robert Heinlein novel. It was a real hippie set up with regular ‘rap’ sessions on war, civil rights, women’s rights, drugs – all the popular topics of the early 70’s. At one of these ‘rap’ sessions, we described what we were doing ‘to give the kids something to do and get them off the streets’. Somebody in the room said, ‘you ought to write a grant for that’. We didn’t even know what a grant was. He explained Grok was funded by two organizations funneling federal dollars for exactly the purpose we were fulfilling.

It was too good to be true. We wrote grant proposals to ‘Project Youth Opportunity and Generation Action South Suburbia. We went and made presentations to both, explaining there were no adults along because we had begun this on our own. We were already doing it. We were able to drop the name of the minister and a couple high school teachers that were completely snookered by our charisma.

They were ‘matching’ grants. Before we knew it, we were receiving two federal dollars for every one we could raise. We called ourselves “Equinox”. We continued holding events which got progressively larger, attracting hundreds of kids from way beyond our high school. We had a bank account. We rented office space, bought furniture and had a phone put in. We were advertising our events in local weeklies.


In the fall of 73, we reserved a large outdoor facility. It had two large swimming pools but they were shut down because this was after Labor Day. What they had were acres of field and picnic tables. We rented a flatbed truck and a gas powered generator and hired three bands. It was to be our biggest event. We didn’t realize it but it would also be our swan song. The numbers were into the many hundreds. We were loud, drunk and under a thick cloud of marijuana smoke. Someone called the cops. They came in force but were taken aback by the sheer numbers of kids. They wanted to shut it down but couldn’t access our generator. The crowd tightened up around the stage. The police were asking ‘who’s in charge’ and all they got in return was “Equinox. Equinox.”

The last band played a few more songs. The crowd remained till the bands packed up their equipment and, as one, everyone went to their vehicles. We slowly made our way out of the complex. As far as I know, no one was pulled over, no one arrested.

The police did their due diligence. They ran down everything they could get on Equinox – the office, the phone, the bank account, the matching federal dollars.They seized the bank accounts and changed the locks. Who knows where the money went? They also found that this was all accomplished by a handful of juveniles. None of us were old enough to sign a legal contract or to be charged as adults. The whole thing simply went away. I’ve always thought they were so embarrassed and mortified that they had been taken by a bunch of kids, they wanted nothing more than for it to simply go away.


Tom Burnham describes himself as “‘Just a guy who has had more fun than the law allows.” This is his second appearance in GHLL.