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Chilly Willy to you, just Larry to friends

Major was turning things around before his tragic death

Chilly Willy lived in the streets and he died in the street. Both the life and death of Charlotte’s most famous homeless person were tragic, the latter made even more so because it came just as he was finally receiving and accepting help.

The arc of his life and its sudden ending should give this community renewed appreciation of the humanity of the homeless and the mentally ill. And that, inevitably, should help us see how much work we have to do.

His real name was William Larry Major, Larry to those who knew him best, and for a guy who much of the time was not so lovable, he was loved deeply. Observer reporter Fred Kelly introduced him to the world in a front-page Observer story in 2007. Kelly told of Major’s repeated arrests for public drunkenness, aggressive panhandling and other non-violent offenses.

“Sometimes, he said, he looks through Dumpsters ‘because that’s where the good food is’,” Kelly reported. “Major said that one day he plans to leave the streets. Until then, he said, he’ll stay where he can.”

Almost five years later, he did leave the streets. He was handed a key to an apartment all his own. He had lived at Moore Place for about eight months when he was hit by a car and killed on 7th Street Thursday night.

A homeless person’s death, sadly, typically goes unnoticed. But while his story was not unlike others’, Larry Major was not typical. For some, he was a caricature, and a convenient way to think they knew the homeless. For others, his celebrity served as a genuine window into the lives of our community’s most unfortunate. For those closest to him, like Moore Place director Caroline Chambre, he was a friend, and a man trying to better himself one tiny step at a time.

When he moved into Moore Place after 25 years on the streets, he was torn, Chambre said. “It was a huge transition for him to come inside,” she said. “I’ll never forget the look of disbelief when he saw the apartment. He loved it but it was hard. He would come to me almost every day and say, ‘I love it here, but I’m scared.’”

This was no Hollywood movie, Chambre said. When he arrived, Larry was drunk all the time, and over the months he only slowly drank less. But he did, and also learned how to be around other people. One time he went seven days without a drink and was charming and happy. At the time of his death, Chambre said, his good days far outnumbered his bad.

Moore Place couldn’t save Larry Major, but it was beginning to. It gave him dignity, as it is doing for dozens of others. His death is a reminder that almost his entire life passed before the community helped him and he in turn began helping himself. For years, people took YouTube videos of him and gave him high fives, and enjoyed calling him Chilly Willy. Most of them, though, kept on moving.

There are hundreds of others in Larry’s shoes in Charlotte. Providing them housing, and surrounding them with intense services, works. It’s expensive, but far cheaper than emergency rooms, jails, courts and shelters. Some public leaders are starting to get that, but Charlotte still lags other cities in fixing a problem we know how to fix.

Moore Place is a lifesaver for a fraction of those folks. Let’s build another, and call this one Larry’s Place.

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The Charlotte Observer welcomes your comments on news of the day. The more voices engaged in conversation, the better for us all, but do keep it civil. Please refrain from profanity, obscenity, spam, name-calling or attacking others for their views.

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