(Tory Ryden, NEWS CENTER) -- On any given night, in many towns and cities around the state, dozens of homeless Mainers sleep outside. Their bed is a doorway, a heating grate, a park bench, any open space.
“I sleep outside every night. Doesn’t matter the temperature. I’m outside if it’s 15 below,” 59 year old Mark shared. The veteran and former builder, covers the open hole in his tracheotomy to speak, the result of throat cancer.
Mark has become part of a growing population of homeless veterans here in Maine. College educated, Mark lost his home, his wife and his livelihood due to a combination of divorce, alcoholism and, quite possibly, PTSD. Mark served in the US military for years, but doesn’t like to talk about his experience.
“They said I couldn’t cope with military life. I have bi-polar,” veteran Al shared. “I take medicine for it every day. So, you let me get off my medicine and things are odd. Real hard to handle.” Al recently became homeless and is awaiting a medical procedure. Like many veterans in Maine, he has worked many different jobs. “I’ve done tons of jobs. I’ve had em, I’ve lost em. It’s just an ongoing circle,“ he said. “I had a place. I just couldn’t afford it. So I just packed up and moved out.”
Moving around, not staying in one place, appears to be a common theme among veterans. That similarity spikes when they have experienced PTSD—Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. “I was in the gulf war. I’ve been here for two years. Just running. I can’t stop running. I just don’t know how to explain it, just running. I have four kids, and four grandkids and just running,” former Navy Seal John shared. He has hopped to towns and cities up and down the east coast for years. He says he has had a difficult time outrunning the demons of war.
Thomas, who now works with veterans out on the streets, understands their plight. “I’m a veteran of the United States Navy. I got out, it’s so easy to remember because I got out on April first of 1992 so I was in during the original dessert storm.” He works at Preble Street Resource Center’s veteran outreach program, hoping to connect with veterans like Mark, Al and John.
“I don’t ask for a lot of help from anybody. I’m kind of a stubborn old guy. I’m like trying to throw a cat into the bathtub,” said Mark, managing to laugh between coughs as he wipes fluid from his tracheotomy. “I have this. Two crappy little jackets over there and what I’m wearing right here, this is what I have left.” Mark is fiercely independent and, although he sometimes eats at the soup kitchen, he mostly relies on local restaurants for his meals. And sleeping? He’s got that covered, too. “I sleep out of doors every night, even in the snow. They’ve got my sleeping bag right in there, which I got from the veterans.”
This story plays out, on any given night, for an estimated 40,000 veterans across the country---according to the U-S Interagency council on homelessness. Others who are counting, like social solutions and the military times, put that number at closer to 50,000.
“It’s rough out there, I’m telling you. Being out on the streets, it’s very rough,” lamented John. And for a self professed former Navy Seal, that’s saying something. John describes dangerous missions in the Persian Gulf. “I’m telling you, when you’re jumping out of an airplane and your mission might be a half mile away and you’re swimming, let me tell you there’s nothing but scare..” A military discharge upended John’s life. Struggling with PTSD and still unhealed physical wounds, he’s bounced from town to town, city to city. And, his description of homelessness is haunting. “This is a totally different war. I mean when you wake up cause you don’t have something to drink and you’re shaking so hard even going to work it’s an everyday process. I just block everything out and when I’m working I’m good and when I’m not I’m on the streets looking for another beer.”
John, like many vets, finds himself unworthy of help. It’s something Thomas wrestled with, too. He didn’t think he was qualified to receive assistance from the program that ultimately helped him rebuild his life at Preble Street in Portland. “In my mind I’m thinking well combat vets from Vietnam, those are vets, I’m not really a vet and there are a lot of people who qualify for these services but they think ‘oh there’s someone else, there’s another vet who’s more deserving.”
And, according to the National Veterans Foundation.
Their research shows a lack of societal support and social isolation are the leading causes of homelessness among our veterans. And, compounding that risk are exposure to combat, repeated deployments, and economic and personal hardships.
Once brave warriors sliding into the fringes: out of sight and often out of reach. “It’s a shame that we’re out here. You know another shame is we gave so much,” John said earnestly, his green eyes glistening. “You give your heart and soul and these veterans that are out here are alone, they’re scared, I can guarantee you that, and they drink to kill the pain.”
The problem, according to Preble Street’s Bill Burns, is these veterans are “unable to get medication, they’re unable to get to the counseling that they need and so many choose to self medicate so that’s where people develop the substance abuse disorders that can take years off of their lives and can take years to resolve. It’s a real challenge.”
It’s a challenge the Health Services Director takes on every day. Burns has helped run more than a dozen A shelters and food pantries across the U.S. and says the deck is stacked against veterans. Many return home, he says, suffering from deep physical and mental wounds. “The sad kind of truth is that many of the people that we serve have experienced significant trauma multiple times throughout their lives; certainly our veterans are at risk of experiencing a particular trauma and PTSD when they come home and sadly we know that 70 percent of the people that we serve don’t have insurance.”
And when health issues creep in, the problem is compounded. “I’ve got a surgery coming up and so they want me to try to stay sober until that happens,” Al, who needs throat surgery, shared. Mark, who had a tracheotomy 3 years ago, just got some tough news.
Al needs throat surgery….and Mark, who had a tracheotomy 3 years ago, just got some tough news. “They figured out I had cancer. Now I’ve got it again. Oh boy.” While both veterans will receive medical care, it’s difficult to not wonder what would have happened if they had been reached sooner; what would have happened if they weren’t living on the street.
It is something Bill Burns ponders often. “We start seeing disease processes crop up that you might expect to see in the population of people in their late 60’s and early 70’s, and we see that occurring in guys that are in their 50’s and early 60’s,” Burns explained. “I think one of the sad realities of life for people that are homeless is their experience is like living the worst day of their life over and over and over again.”
And while hope may seem evasive to those living that nightmare, it is something these veterans must hold onto.
“The programs they do got they gotta keep ‘em going, in order to get the vets off the streets,” Al said. Mark strongly declared, “I want ‘em to take care of the veterans who have been in Iraq and Afghanistan and take care of them boys man, they went through hell.” John, meantime, hopes to bring his life full circle, to get back to a place where he can receive even a fraction of the amount of respect he received when he was a Navy Seal. “For me, I just want people to love me as much as I love them. Like all of us, we deserve it. I believe in God and believe that this life is just here for now and we’ll be in a better place one day.”
**The Preble Street Veterans Housing Services (VHS) assists low-income veterans and their families to find and maintain stable housing and works to end homelessness among veterans throughout Maine. For more information, www.preblestreet.org
or phone number: (207) 775-0026