John Lam, 60, for whom alcohol and the streets had been a way of life for the past two decades, died yesterday of injuries suffered when he fell out of his wheelchair near the downtown park where his street friend and drinking buddy Jesse Carpenter froze to death last winter.
Carpenter's death in early December became a rallying point for advocates of the homeless, particularly after it was discovered that he had won a Bronze Star for heroism in World War II. But Lam's friends, relatives and would-be helpers said yesterday that both men had died because they couldn't get the one thing they needed most to survive: protection from themselves.
"John was a chronic alcoholic, and he couldn't really cope for himself," said the Rev. Robert Waggener, pastor a priest at St. Paul's Episcopal Church in the District.
Waggener, who administered the last rites to Lam yesterday at George Washington University Hospital, said people like Carpenter and Lam ought to be confined to mental hospitals or detoxification centers before they deteriorate to such a point of no return.
"But unless you can prove that someone is imminently suicidal or going to kill someone, you can't get them in," he said.
Carpenter, 61, died Dec. 5 in Lafayette Square when the temperature dropped to 34 degrees. His body was found by a passer-by at the foot of Lam's wheelchair. He was buried with military honors in Arlington National Cemetery, and Lam, also a World War II veteran, attended the services and told how his friend had helped "shove me around" when Parkinson's disease put him in a wheelchair two years ago.
"After Jesse died, he couldn't get around much, and he pretty much just stayed in the park," Waggener said.
On Friday, according to ambulance and hospital officials, Lam was picked up at 14th and K streets NW and taken to George Washington. He had fallen out of his wheelchair, fracturing his neck.
He was treated by Dr. Arthur Kobrine, the same physician who took care of press secretary James Brady after the 1981 attempted assassination of President Reagan.
But hospital officials said Lam never regained consciousness. Unable to breathe on his own, he died at 3:45 p.m. when medical authorities disconnected his respirator.
"He was very nice, but he probably held the record for being in detoxification," said a representative of the House of Laureze, a long-term shelter for the homeless in the District.
She described Lam and Carpenter as two of a group of older alcoholics -- of which only one is still alive -- who lived in or near McPherson and Lafayette parks. Lam, she said, had stayed at the shelter several times between 1981 and 1983 but was never allowed to stay permanently because he wouldn't stop drinking.
"We tried to commit him to St. Elizabeths, but they told us his was a drinking problem, not a mental problem," she said.
Waggener said yesterday that the many seriously ill mental and alcoholic patients have been released into the community, "but the community programs to treat them just never got started."
Renee Underwood, a social worker in George Washington's emergency room, said Lam had been placed in a detoxification center after Carpenter's death but that it was hard to place or keep him and other indigent alcoholics in longterm treatment.
"Very often, they're not interested in getting help," Underwood said.
The temporary shelters are good, she added, "but what can you do when you only have someone for a night?"
Lam, according to a friend, was born Robert Taylor but changed his name in 1968 to avoid the stigma of a bad employment history.
His older brother, Joseph Taylor, of Baltimore, said yesterday that he had tried unsuccessfully to get his brother to live with him.
A sister living in Oxon Hill died last year, and another sister lives in Dayton, Va.
The brother said Lam had married years ago and had three children, including a daughter living "somewhere" in the Washington area.
Taylor, who said his brother never had a drinking problem until after his military service, said Lam was in a detoxification program at D.C. General last fall.
"I visited him every day, but he just finally walked away from it," Taylor said. "He was never dangerous -- except to himself."