In the early hours on October 5, as the morning sun emerged through the clouds on an overcast fall day, the body of Justice Taylor was found in the loading area at the rear of Jefferson County Community Ministries (JCCM) on West Washington Street.
Slumped in his wheelchair, it was a harsh end to a somewhat harsh life.
A victim of juvenile diabetes, Taylor had lost the use of one of his legs after a severe ankle injury, and had to have it amputated. He did not wear a prosthetic, so he kept the remaining portion of his limb wrapped in an Ace bandage. Only 26, he was wheelchair-bound for most of his pain-filled adult life.
He was also often homeless, save for brief rental situations, one of many individuals within Charles Town’s city limits without shelter.
“It just gives me chills thinking that he’s gone,” said Debbenic Addison, who described herself as homeless but hopeful. “I miss him so bad.”
By most accounts, Taylor was a truly nice guy, friendly and generous, often humorous, with a sharp, biting tongue. His voice had a peculiar rasp, like if muffled by sandpaper, one that often belied his easygoing demeanor. He loved people, and his daily Vienna sausage repasts. He liked to smoke cigarettes, and to curse, and to tell jokes. He liked the Orioles. And a great deal of other things. He loved hanging out by the Charles Town Library, and frequently attended many of the church-sponsored daily dinners in the downtown area.
Yet at the time of print, over six weeks after his death, Taylor’s body still remains at Eackles-Spencer & Norton Funeral Home in Harpers Ferry, awaiting cremation and pending a definitive report from the local medical examiner.
“He has not been cremated yet. I paid on half his [expenses] and his so-called father [Thomas Taylor] was coming to pay the other half,” said Connie Kitt Haynes, his mother. “I don’t understand why he’s putting off paying it. I miss Justice so much. I go to Charles Town and I catch myself looking for [him] on the street and then I start to cry all over again.”
Taylor’s premature death has put a spotlight on the city’s ongoing battle with homelessness, and related alcohol, drug, and mental health challenges that persist in the community. He has been sorely missed, and has perhaps accelerated Charles Town Mayor Bob Trainor’s proposed homeless task force.
The tributes for Taylor have been consistent and effusive: a kind soul; a man who might help others with little regard for his own substantial personal needs. He did struggle with drugs, heroin notably, and occasionally got in trouble with law enforcement, but he seemed to carry those weights better than most.
“He was a good dude, a pain in the [butt] at times, but had a good heart and a [crap] life,” said Shannon Hicks, a recovery coach JCCM. “Sucks to know I’ll never hear his laugh again, but maybe I’ll hear the flutter of his wings from time to time. Rest in peace Justice Taylor; I will miss your smile and your laugh and can’t wait to see you again. May you finally be in the peace you always longed for, and have the love you always deserved.”
A Memorable Image
“Can you give me a push, just for a minute?”— Justice Taylor
Travelling East Washington Street, at its intersection with North George Street, the sidewalk noticeably steepens as it passes City Hall and the courthouse on each side. Taylor could handle most of his own navigation, but would occasionally ask a friend or whoever was nearby for a push, until the slope flattened around the Charles Town Library.
Taylor was what you might call country strong, with a barrel chest and sinewy sleek arms, strengthened by his daily commute. He enjoyed the 90-second company and conversation, and always thanked people for the assistance. The beat-up wheelchair itself had seen better days, but he knew his body and machinery well, and didn’t exert himself more than he could handle.
Maneuvering up and down Washington Street and Route 340, as the street is known as it passes the casino, gave Taylor much visibility in the community. His silver wheel chair, white tank top, jeans, and shock of brown hair forged a memorable image. If people didn’t know him by name, they did by sight or through a personal experience with him.
“I was deeply saddened when I heard of Justice Taylor’s passing,” said Councilwoman Jean Petti [Ward 3], who lives in a historic home near Taylor’s daily route. “I did not know him well, but we had spoken briefly when we met during my walks downtown with my family, and he was always friendly and polite. I pray for peace for his soul and healing for his family.”
His mother said Taylor had a good childhood. He was well-liked by his teachers at Page-Jackson Elementary School in Charles Town, and he was a polite and respectful young man. The family eventually moved to Florida when he was a teenager, where Taylor helped to take care of his ailing grandmother. But after his mother divorced his father, and he lost his grandmother, Taylor’s life became difficult. A diagnosis of juvenile diabetes compounded the emotional loss, and steered his life in a different direction.
“His grandmother got sick, and she depended on Justice, so I allowed him to stay with her, and when she passed away, he really took it hard,” Haynes remarked. “And that is when he started living on the streets. He really loved his grandmother a lot, and she meant a lot to him, and he meant everything to her.”
Taylor was a frequent visitor at JCCM, the hub for the city’s homeless and near-homeless. JCCM provides a variety of services to help assist people getting back on their feet, from addiction counseling, clothing, and education classes to a food bank, job placement, and several other social services. Run by Executive Director Robert Shefner, a longtime CIA employee, it’s a mostly volunteer-driven organization. Several local companies donate regularly to JCCM, which then re-distributes books, clothing, food, household goods, and toys to those in need.
Shefner knew Taylor well, and had frequent positive interactions with him over the years.
“I suspect that anyone who has spent any time with Justice has asked these questions, often, perhaps, with a sense of blame that we—individually and collectively—could [or] should have done something more, [or] different,” he indicated. “We will ask that question for each and every person that comes in our doors. The more important questions are, how many more Justices are out there right now, and how much of our community can become involved toward addressing some of the issues that we, and others, face every day. My question is, should this be something that just happens?”
Though the official cause of death is still unknown, some suspect that it may be related to his pre-existing health conditions. Others suggest it may be drug-related, or a combination of both.
“The young man passed away from his [blood] sugar being above six hundred, and because he didn’t want to go to the hospital because they treated him like [crap] more times than not,” said Hicks, in response to a midsummer post on the Jefferson County Prosperity group Facebook page. “When someone who’s homeless and has a substance abuse issue goes to the hospital, nine times out of ten, they’re treated worse than second-class citizens.”
Jefferson County Prosperity is a West Virginia non-profit organization, with a stated mission of “supporting equal economic opportunity for all residents of Jefferson County.” The organization’s Facebook page is updated frequently, and features many posts that address the city, county, and region’s most polarizing public figures and topics, both economic and political. But on the issue of homelessness, the tenor is mostly conciliatory and neutral.
We need our local governments to focus their attention on issues like homelessness,” said Dan Casto, an attorney and one of the moderators of the JCP online group. “For too long, our officials have played politics by focusing on issues they have no control over. It is time for them to get serious about the well-being of their constituents.”
Mayor Trainor has held several research meetings for the proposed homeless task force, has sought out staff and volunteers at JCCM, and has spoken to people who are currently or have been homeless. However, he could not be reached for comment for this article.
“I have found [Mayor Trainor] to be a careful listener and one who poses good and thoughtful questions,” said Shefner. “And I have the highest respect for the Charles Town Police Department. I understand their frustrations and appreciate their compassion.”
Trainor has contacted neighboring communities in the region, including Frederick, Maryland, where he spent much of his Coast Guard career, for advice and best practices.
“[Mayor Trainor] is devoted to finding a model and system-driven solution that can help halt the slide into homelessness and find fast relief for those who do find themselves without shelter,” said Petti. “As a member of Mayor Trainor’s task force, I hope to keep a focus on finding constructive ways for our homeless population to spend their days out of the harsh elements, and safe shelter [at night] for families, persons with pets, or those struggling with dependency or mental health issues.”
A Place of Searching
The homelessness issue in Charles Town has also attracted the attention of the region’s leadership in Charleston.
“While I’m pleased to see the beginnings of mobilization and support for those that need us most, I still often wonder, what more can be done to eradicate such an injustice?” said State Delegate Sammi Brown, who represents the citizens of Charles Town. “I find myself in a place of searching for real, humane, and sustainable solutions—and I still also find myself at odds with a system that continuously struggles to address pain management, mental health, affordable housing, and healthcare.”
“Do you have any snipes?”— Justice Taylor
A snipe is a loose, partially-consumed cigarette. A butt, in the parlance of smokers, but one with enough remaining tobacco to be smoked again. They are abundant in certain parts of Charles Town, in front of restaurants and bars, at the casino, and at adjacent hotels. Or just discarded, sometimes in mint condition, on the streets and walkways of Washington Street, and parts in between. Packs of cigarettes are expensive, after all, and enough loose cigarettes can be gathered and emptied of their cured brown oddments into a “new” ersatz blend. Taylor liked his snipes, and could never have enough. He had many friends—black and white, young and old, fortunate sons and unfortunate souls—many of them, like the snipes, somewhat discarded.
The community, especially his homeless brothers and sisters, continues to grieve.
“Every day since Justice passed away, [our community] has not been able to find one another because we have been forced away from [many] public places and businesses that associate us with trouble,” said Addison, who currently works at the Macy’s logistics warehouse in Martinsburg, and is also homeless.
“You might point and say, ‘those are the homeless people,’ and keep walking. Or you might see a crowd of us, mostly carrying bags, and form your own conclusions. But we aren’t lazy, and we will work. We do have manners and courtesy. The reasons we are homeless, well, you will have to determine them by conversation yourself. Or, do nothing, and just rely on hearsay. We just ask for you to show some kindness and some opportunities. If the offer is there, let us show you, for real, how this small community can be united.”
— To find out more about how you can get involved with the Jefferson County homeless, even if it’s just to donate, click here.