CHARLES TOWN - To many who passed him on the street in downtown Charles Town, he was known namelessly as the young homeless guy in the wheelchair.
To those who knew him personally for years, Justice Taylor was a kind and generous friend but also a troubled and frustratingly self-destructive man.
Taylor joked and grinned in an easygoing way. But he could also storm off in his wheelchair, angrily ranting obscenities sometimes, particularly when he was questioned for indulging in drugs and a sugary diet so harmful to someone with diabetes.
“Justice was a complicated person,” said Jan Jordan, a volunteer with an overnight homeless shelter sponsored by Jefferson County Community Ministries, a nonprofit charity group in Charles Town. “He could be very difficult — I think even sometimes for his friends.
“He didn’t always like to do what was best for himself and didn’t like it when people reminded him that what he was doing wasn’t best.”
A 26-year-old who had his right leg amputated due to complications from diabetes, Taylor was found dead Saturday morning behind JCCM’s services building on West Washington Street in downtown Charles Town. His body was discovered about 7:30 a.m. lying shirtless on the ground, not far from an outdoor picnic table used by JCCM clients and staff.
Charles Town police Chief Chris Kutcher acknowledged Taylor’s “unattended death,” but would not comment further except to say the West Virginia Medical Examiner’s Office is determining what caused his death.
As someone who was rushed numerous times to Jefferson Medical Center for emergency care over the years, Taylor was not feeling well Thursday and Friday, according to Jordan and his friend Charles McDonald, who were among those who last saw Taylor before he died.
“He didn’t seem like he was feeling good or something,” said McDonald, who first met Taylor about seven years ago over breakfast at a day-shelter program for the homeless at a Charles Town church.
On Thursday, McDonald had driven Taylor to a friend’s house in Ranson, but soon after arriving, Taylor asked to return to the JCCM services building. That was the last time McDonald saw his hard-luck and hardheaded friend.
“His blood sugar here lately has been dropping down, like, really low and stuff,” McDonald said. “He struggled. He had a hard time with his illness and stuff.”
“Not a good combination”
Jordan and Bob Shefner, JCCM’s executive director, said Taylor would supplement his sugary diet with illicit street drugs. Taylor mostly smoked marijuana, but he would take more dangerous drugs too, Shefner said.
“The diabetes along with the drugs was just not a good combination,” Jordan observed.
Despite those many emergency hospital trips, Taylor would nevertheless scoff at his diabetes, particularly when feeding his sweet tooth. He had his disease under control, he would say. “He just said it was all right because he had the needle” to inject insulin shots to help regulate his blood-sugar levels, McDonald recalled. “That’s what he used to say a lot.”
Then last Friday, Taylor was throwing up outside the JCCM services building, Jordan said, but he was lucid answering questions. “He was being typically stubborn,” she said. “He wasn’t feeling well and he didn’t want anybody to take him over to the hospital.”
In the past, Taylor would sometimes call an ambulance himself if he thought he needed to see a doctor. He would also refuse to go to the hospital even when he was clearly sick, even when others insisted.
He would “dig in his heels,” Jordan recalled.
“There have been times when he didn’t want to go and I called the ambulance anyway,” she added.
Friday afternoon was the last time JCCM’s staff and volunteers saw Taylor alive. He was digging in his heels again, refusing to see a doctor.
So it was a sad shock but not necessarily a surprise to hear Taylor, for someone so young, had died, Jordan said. “Probably most of us had had the discussion with Justice that, ‘You know, Justice we’re worried that one day we’re going to find you dead in some back alley and nobody’s going to know what happened to you,’” she said.
“But, no, not expecting it now,” she added, “not expecting it so soon.”
On and off the streets
Taylor knew the JCCM building is locked at night, Jordan said. “I don’t think he would necessarily have expected to find one of us and he didn’t have a phone,” she said.
Jordan knew Taylor for about three years through her volunteer work with JCCM’s programs and at overnight cold-weather shelters rotating at various local churches. “He kind of would bounce around with friends some, so he wasn’t there every night,” she said.
When he wasn’t gliding along sidewalks and streets in his wheelchair, Taylor stood out among the homeless people clustered in downtown Charles Town. He would hang out outside at the Charles Town Library and often sleep there at night, Shefner said.
Taylor was well-liked by the people who knew him, including many of the local homeless, Shefner, Jordan and McDonald said. He made regular friends with workers and customers at a fast-food restaurant in Charles Town. “Workers and customers always tried to lend him a helping hand and help him out any way they could,” McDonald said.
Taylor grew up in Jefferson County and graduated from Jefferson High School in 2011. His family still lives in the area, Shefner said.
Taylor became homeless off and on — and mostly on — after a relative he was living with passed away several years ago, Shefner said.
About two years ago, shortly after his leg was amputated, Taylor got an apartment in Martinsburg through the West Virginia Coalition to End Homelessness. But feeling isolated from his friends and home community, Taylor gave up the apartment for another living situation he had arranged back in Charles Town, Shefner said.
“He was pretty convinced that he had a long-term permanent [housing] solution,” Shefner said. “We weren’t so convinced, and it was, in fact, something that didn’t last and he was back on the streets.”
“There’s been a lot of very temporary situations,” he added.
A wayside from the streets
As it has for others, JCCM’s services building became Taylor’s wayside, a temporary refuge from the weather and world outside. However, because of behavior problems, Taylor recently had been formally turned away from JCCM’s support programs, Shefner said.
Taylor was asked to write an apology and make amends to the people involved in a recent incident at the Charles Town Library. He had written the apology but hadn’t fully finished the agreed-upon action to demonstrate he was sorry, Shefner said.
Nevertheless, Taylor still stopped by and lingered at the JCCM building where several of his friends also went. And JCCM’s staff and volunteers still saw him and informally helped him however they could.
Shefner said research is showing that a large number of homeless people have experienced severe trauma or abuse, and Taylor took a psychological assessment that indicated he had such a past.
Shefner said he sees Taylor’s death as a possible catalyst for Charles Town to examine and learn more about its homeless population and their individual challenges and situations.
“Why was Justice homeless?” he asked. “What are the health issues? What kinds of programs could have helped him? What kind of intensive programs could have helped him?”
Shefner said he doesn’t want to cast guilt on anyone about the problem, but he hopes many more people recognize the homeless as legitimate and welcome members of the community. “There’s enough evidence around that people do better in a supportive environment than not,” he said.
McDonald recalled how Taylor wanted the song “Comfortably Numb” by British rock band Pink Floyd played in his memory after he died. “That was his favorite song.”
But Taylor didn’t dwell much on dying, McDonald said. Instead, Taylor was looking forward in his life. Last week, he was fitted to receive an artificial leg, his friends said.
“I always told him, I said ‘when you get your leg, I’ll see you soon jogging down the street,’” McDonald recalled. “I think if he would have gotten a leg, he would have did excellent with walking because he was balanced so well.”