Harold Taylor was raised by a mother who gave birth to him at 14 years old. She kept him, despite her family’s continuous pressure to give him up for adoption. With her constant support and encouragement, years later, he found himself playing as the starting running back for the Lincoln University football team on a full scholarship. He was also in ROTC and had gone through basic as a cadet, planning to be commissioned as an officer when he graduated. The football team folded and he lost his scholarship, so he went home to St. Louis, MO. He found himself just sitting around, a pastime he didn’t enjoy. So, he called an Army recruiter.
Taylor went on to serve in the Army from 1990-1998. He served in combat during Desert Storm and was a part of the 82nd Airborne Division for three years before he separated from the military. When he left the Army, he went on to serve something else – alcohol.
“I chose alcohol over everything,” he said. He describes a situation where his girlfriend at the time gave him an ultimatum; her or alcohol. He left right then and went to the corner store to buy beer. When he returned his things were packed up sitting outside. Taylor took his stuff and went to a boarding house in St. Louis while his addiction only got worse. Taylor shared that he became increasingly paranoid, thinking people were following him and trying to hurt him. He quickly started accumulating a heavy police record and soon found himself homeless.
He recalls the time – after years of being homeless – where he was sleeping in an abandoned vacant building under a pile of clothes to keep warm. One day people came into that vacant building to board it up, and he felt them kick him, but they didn’t see him because he was buried under the clothes. “I remember spending Thanksgiving laying there thinking I am going to die in this building,” he said.
Taylor shared that almost dying is what finally made him realize he was wasting his life away. He explained that he had set what he thought was a controlled fire to keep warm and he woke up with the blanket covering him completely engulfed in flames. He escaped without injury and vowed to make a change. It was 2012, and the day after that fire, he took a bus to the Jefferson Barracks VA and asked for help. He was immediately put into substance abuse treatment and given the care and support he needed. Taylor was soon diagnosed with anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder, caused by his time in service.
When he finished his initial treatment, he was brought to The Joseph Center – a veteran’s homeless shelter in East St. Louis, IL, which provides trauma-informed services for male military veterans. It was founded by Martha Watts and her husband, Carl. She was a former VA nurse and wanted more for the veterans she was serving.
Taylor admits that he wasn’t initially the best resident of The Joseph Center, rebelling often against their rules. Taylor smiled when he remembered his case manager Mr. Anderson pulling him aside one day after a few weeks of what he called his “nonsense behavior” and telling him he was too bright for what he was doing. He went into his room immediately after the conversation and said he started changing.
Taylor went on to graduate with his associate’s in criminal justice, which he shared was both ironic and humorous due to his criminal record. He didn’t stop with just his associate’s but graduated (with honors) with his Bachelor of Social Work degree. He had a professor in that program that asked, “Why stop”? He took her advice to heart and is now finishing up his last two semesters for his Master of Social Work. His picture is on a billboard now for the University of Missouri-St. Louis, with other student veterans. “I’m happy, I like the person I see in the mirror now,” said Taylor.
These days, Taylor doesn’t recognize the man he used to be before The Joseph Center. He is a career counselor at Employment Connections in St. Louis and plans to work for the VA one day serving veterans like him. He’s also a passionate advocate for people of color serving in the military. Taylor shared a story of coming home and having someone use a derogatory term towards him because he was a black man in uniform. “We serve our country, all of us, but then we come home to this kind of brutality and disrespect. I didn’t fight for that, we didn’t fight for that,” he said. He said he is proud to be who he is, but wishes people who didn’t look like him could put his shoes on for a bit.
It is with this in mind that Taylor is not only a graduate student and full-time career counselor, but also a part-time case manager at The Joseph Center. He spends his shift at the center as a mentor to the new veterans coming through the homeless shelter and hopes that by leading by example he can help them find their way – just like he found his.