Putting the pieces back — together

Tom Johnson said he’s certain that a stay at the Hilda Barg Homeless Prevention Center saved his life.

Everything started to fall apart for Johnson, who was once a home improvement contractor, after he broke his leg on the job about four years ago.

The doctors had to put pins in his leg to hold it together, but the real trouble started when they took the pins out, said Johnson, 62.

“I got a staph infection and it destroyed my heart … left me with 30 percent,” Johnson said.

The doctors cleared up the infection, but couldn’t fix the part of his heart that was eaten away by the staphylococcal bacteria.

After he was discharged from the hospital, he couldn’t work, lost the company he had run for 15 years, lost his house, lived in his van, got depressed and started drinking.

When the drinking nearly finished off his broken heart, he sought help at the shelter.

“I could hardly walk when I came in here. I was a sick puppy,” Johnson said. “It was either come here or go to a nursing home.”

He recuperated at the shelter and with help from the staff of Volunteers of America, eventually qualified to move into the Men’s Transitional Housing Program.

“The staff here just works their heart out for you. They really do,” he said.

During his stay at the shelter, Johnson ran into Sam Patterson who had a similar story.

Patterson worked for a logging company and everything was going fine until he, too, met with disaster.

“I had my stomach busted open in ’94 when a tree fell on me in Tennessee,” Patterson said.

Johnson cracked on his friend while Patterson told his story.

“It didn’t curb his appetite any. He knows what to do with a knife and a fork,” Johnson said as Patterson fondly patted his ample stomach and smiled large.

Like many who receive disability and are unable to work, Patterson tried to wash away his depression in a flood of beer.

He moved to the area to live with family members, but they kicked him out of their home when they went on vacation. He wound up at the shelter, went through the program with Johnson and now the men are roommates.

Even though they’re both on disability and are unable to hold jobs, they said they can’t sit around their apartment all day with nothing to do, so they volunteer at the shelter to keep busy. Besides, they like the place.

“I come back here because the place is just so good to be around,” Johnson said.

“I don’t like sitting in those four rooms. I’ve got to be around people,” Johnson said.

Patterson and Johnson sort donations at the shelter, clean up around the place and provide supportive shoulders to cry on if the need arises.

“They helped me out; I want to help them back,” said the 47-year-old Patterson.

Gayle Sanders, the program director at the shelter, said, “They really are wonderful, sweet guys who do as much as they can every day. Their dedication and good humor helps everyone get through each day.”

Staff writer Keith Walker can be reached at (703) 878-8063.

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