Formerly homeless man had left memory with many
As he struggled with homelessness and mental illness, Thomas Orr of Rochester might have felt invisible and alone, but he was a kindred spirit to the many people like him and often served as their voice.
Orr died Feb. 12 at age 65 of what friends describe as natural causes. He received a county burial Thursday at Oakwood Cemetery. During the graveside service, conducted by the Rev. Dave Berg from Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, Orr was remembered for candidly and courageously telling his story at schools, churches and organizations to shed light on the plight of the homeless and mentally ill.
"Good Shepherd is a better and a more caring place because of the risk that he took," Berg said. "In the face of the struggles that he had and the demons that he struggled with, he dared to share his story with us and with so many people. Even though he had this fear of crowds, one weekend he shared it with 350 people."
Orr also shared his story in a 2005 interview with the Post-Bulletin. At that time he described how in April 1985, he was a 39-year-old warehouseman for the Department of Defense in Belleville, Ill., when he suffered a nervous breakdown and left his job. Instead of returning to work like he planned, Orr wound up on the streets.
He suffered from agoraphobia, social anxiety disorder, post-traumatic stress syndrome (from childhood abuse), borderline schizophrenia and bipolar disorder and also struggled with addictions to heroin and alcohol, he said.
It was while hitchhiking across the country that Orr stopped for a few nights at Rochester's Dorothy Day House. He planned to move on but ended up calling Rochester home. Through the help of Zumbro Valley Mental Health and the Salvation Army, he moved into an apartment and eventually became a spokesman who helped garner support for the opening of the Candle Rose Inn at 17 Fourth St. S.W.
Most of the time when he told his story, though it didn't open doors, it opened eyes.
Gaylia Borror, a professor at Winona State University in Rochester, had Orr speak to her graduate-level counseling students in her Human Relations and Diversity Class 30 to 40 times over the past 10 years. Each visit had the biggest impact on her students, she said.
It also affected him, Borror said.
When she knew he wasn't feeling well, Borror said, she'd tell him he didn't have to come, but he always said, "It's as good for me as it is for others."
"He has social anxiety disorder so it was amazing that he would come speak before a group," Borror said. "I could prompt him when he felt lost, he really had a compelling kind of way of working with each other. People would literally cry."
Part of his talks included reading poetry he'd written, like "The Phantom," in which he wrote, "I like the nighttime best, cause daylight makes me feel like life's uninvited guest. Sometimes I just fade to black, and then I'm back. I'm just sittin on the corner doing time, one day closer to death, and two more steps behind."
"It's a really powerful piece," Borror said. "It really captures the faceless perspective that a lot of people who are homeless feel."
She'd print out the poem and send it home with each student. She also had each student write their reactions to Orr's talk and send them to him.
"He collected every note," she said. Some of the notes read:
• "I am almost done with this graduate program, and I can honestly say that my brief time with Thomas Orr was the most powerful experience I have had throughout my time at Winona State." — Nate Gehring.
• "I was not only touched, but I was hurt by his description of the way people treated him. Thomas spoke about how when you are homeless, everything is taken away. When people refuse to acknowledge a homeless person, their dignity is also taken away. This statement really resonated with me. It costs nothing to say hello to someone, and you can also help maintain a person’s sense of dignity by simply acknowledging them." — Sarah Hancock-Hal.
• "Thomas has been through more than any one person should ever have to deal with and yet, he maintains an existence based on hope. The poetry that he writes is an amazing testament to the intelligence he has and the experiences he has survived." — Michelle Arko.
Friend Dan Peters said that he, like Orr, served in the Army cavalry and struggled in his early life. Then, like Orr, he found the help he needed through Zumbro Valley Mental Health, he said.
"He did enjoy the last 10 years of his life while he was in Rochester," Peters said. "We'd watch TV, we both enjoyed comedy shows. And we finally both came to believe in God. During our youth we didn't."
Having that opportunity to know the "better side of life" with Orr is something Peters treasures.