The number of veterans among the homeless population in Indianapolis has been around 25 percent for the past three years, according to the Coalition for Homelessness Intervention and Prevention. For some, the concept of not having a place to go, something to eat, or loved ones to help is difficult to fathom. Even more difficult to imagine is an individual who served our country with honor in the armed forces living on the streets. But for hundreds of people in our city, including over 400 veterans, the concept is reality.
Every homeless individual has a unique story of how they came to be in the situation they’re in. Joe, a homeless veteran I had the honor of meeting, hopes his story will help others find their way out of despair and toward the life they deserve.
Joe, Navy Veteran and Firefighter
Happy twinkling eyes showed signs of the weariness they once held. A warm, broad smile adorned the face of a man who had lived a number of lifetimes. His posture told a story of an individual who knew where he had been and deeply appreciated how far he had come.
“I was in the Navy,” Joe said. “I was a machinist on an ammunition ship. I worked on anything related to an engine, small and large.”
Joe’s time in the Navy coincided with the conflict in Vietnam. He was always on a ship that spent nine months out of the year in the water. He served four years with no difficulties and was discharged. Looking back, he said he wished he had served 20 years.
“After the war, I went back home to mom and dad,” said Joe.
He returned to a stable environment and continued his life outside of the Navy. He got married and became a firefighter in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Joe’s life post-military was a good one — complete with a nice house and a satisfying career that had promotions, bonuses, colleagues and all of the other things that people associate with middle-class success.
So with all of this success and comfort in his world, what triggered the downward spiral that would lead to a life on the streets?
“Divorce,” said Joe very matter-of-fact. “ I thought I was unworthy of so many things so I quit my job and ran away.”
He began drinking and using drugs. He quickly went from life to no life.
“I pretty much gave up,” said Joe. “I wasn’t trying to do anything.”
Joe said his upbringing in a warm and loving household told him “I know better,” so he didn’t give up completely which probably saved his life. But he did run away from everything and everyone he knew.
The Homelessness Cycle
Joe traveled the Midwest going from one job to another, but mostly looking for that next fix. The first time he was in Indiana was to apply for a job in Anderson as the director of a company that maintained rehab facilities. The directorship didn’t work out, but Joe did spend some time managing several buildings within the company. Like most of the jobs he had since leaving Milwaukee, the post in Anderson didn’t last long and Joe went on to the next place.
Eventually, Joe said he stopped taking jobs altogether and starting dealing drugs. Without a stable income Joe landed on the streets moving from shelter to shelter. He was dealing and using, living from fix to fix. He said he ended up in Detroit with no incentive to change.
“Quite frankly, the shelter system there was very enabling,” said Joe. “They provided a shower, a bed, and food, but no real structure or program.”
The shelter only required people to return by 7 p.m. to insure a bed and a meal for the night. If someone missed that deadline, they faced a night on the streets. It was a scenario with which Joe was very familiar.
“Sometimes I’d sleep on vents to stay warm or I’d find a spot on a bench or under a tree. Sometimes I just kept walking all night with no real place to go,” said Joe.
After living like this for about a year, Joe decided it was time to get help.
“I sought help through a veterans service in Detroit and managed to stay clean for a significant amount of time,” said Joe. “But without a program you slip back. It all starts in the mind and at some point the mind says, ‘I want to get high again.’”
And he did. Over and over again Joe went through the cycle of getting clean, then falling back into the same pattern. But after one particular four-day binge, Joe decided he had had enough.
Back on his feet in Indianapolis
Through his connections on the street, Joe eventually asked for help through HVAF of Indiana.
According to their mission statement, HVAF provides housing and reintegration services to homeless veterans. The organization also administers programs and services to prevent at-risk veterans from becoming homeless. They house approximately 200 veterans at any one time in their 13 properties around Indianapolis and provide outreach services to 200 more still out on the street.
Joe not only found a bed and three daily meals but recovery-based services, therapy, medical treatment and a direct link to Veterans Affairs.
“My stay here has been wonderful,” said Joe, now nine months into his recovery. “I’ve worked the 12 steps like AA (Alcoholics Anonymous), I’ve done the program, read the literature and attended meetings. I’ve even joined a running group that is a positive outlet. I’ve been able to meet more people like myself.”
Joe recently graduated from the Residential Employment Substance Abuse Treatment (REST) program. He now has a job and is looking for an apartment. He says the longevity of the program is what has made and will continue to make the difference in his life and help him maintain his new clean and sober lifestyle.
“Two weeks is not going to fix it,” said Joe, “Neither is two months, three months, etc. You have to be sick and tired of being sick and tired. You have to want it.”
There are certain things the counselors require of all clients at HVAF of Indiana. Anyone who wants to change his or her life has to demonstrate honesty, open-mindedness, and willingness to engage in the process.
“With those three things, there is hope,” said Joe, this time with a smile. “Something has happened, something has changed. There is more focus in my life and I have gathered a network that is out of this world.”
With his life back in order after years of chaos, Joe now plans to keep that network to be his best self and become a part of the network to help others who are in the same situation he left behind. He only blamed his pride for keeping him down and using drugs and alcohol. He had to get rid of the selfish things in his life in order to change. His awareness of that now is how he believes he can help someone else.
Joe’s words of wisdom for the path out of homelessness are simple.
“Ask for help,” said Joe. “ It’s available and if you’re a veteran, it’s REALLY available.”