"Out of the Woods" - A Veteran's Letter

Imagine living with 30 or so homeless people in a shelter.  At first you may feel a little unnerved by the diversity of characters that seem so at home and so comfortable in what is after all an institutionalized setting.  At the Volunteers of America resource center for homeless veterans there is a level of cooperation between residents that make it possible for everyone to advance in multiple ways.  New residents find themselves called upon to become members of an informal “family”.  After a few days of predictable resistance, nearly everyone finds acceptance within the community.  As time passes, even the most hardened souls melt into the new setting.  What may surprise the resistant few is the kind tendency for brothers and sisters to give so abundantly of their time and knowledge.

The VOA staff and its residents share information about the many benefits available to honorably discharged veterans.  It is the common goal of staff and residents to reach out and lift homeless vets to a better place.  While there is a common element of Christian faith inherent in the VOA structure, in the lives of many of the residents, and certainly in the staff,   religion remains an outside influence.  This too, is a kindness, a way of reaching out to those not disposed to practice their faith according to a set program.   Veterans are indeed an eclectic grouping of people.  Despite one’s provisions toward the unseen, here, there is a palpable respect for one another based on military service and common humanity.

When full, the resource center can house 4 females and about 50 males, each in his/her own room.  At present there are 3 women and about 30 men sharing the facility.  Food is served at least twice a day, by one of two exceptional cooks.  How exceptional?  9 out of 10 residents gain weight immediately- perhaps 8 pounds in two weeks.  All meals are served in the dining room, so everyone is bound to socialize - like it or not.  Here, residents gather into clusters at 14 tables.  And even those suffering from pain cannot help but to enjoy a half hour of culinary bliss.  Of course, there our occasional conflicts.  These provide fodder for mealtime conversation, and of course, a few laughs.

Being mostly rickety “old men” many residents are prone to gripe about this or that; yet given a moment of reflection these complaints generally take a back seat to established friendships and the recollection that things certainly could be much worse.  After all, no one staying at the resource center was at the top of their game when they first came to the center.  Many suffer physical ailments.  Some have mental or emotional issues.  All were homeless.   All served in the U.S. military.

Comparable to active service, staying at the resource center puts everyone on a level playing field.  Cultural diversity provides no particular advantage to any individual.  Differences are realized only as personality traits.  Here, we are brothers and sisters.  As we come to understand one another more fully, we find a level of trust and comfort in the accumulated wisdom of each individual.  While some residents test that level of empathy, it is apparent that they are slowly warming up.  The general atmosphere of the resource center has a humanizing effect on people.  Where once, many were lone wolves, here we are reminded that we are a part of a pack.

Naturally, everyone has an individual role to play.  There are several comedians, as are needed to provide levity for those steeped in suffering.  Everyone has assigned chores.  Of course, several either cannot or will not do chores.  Fortunately there are a few who are full of energy who voluntarily pick up the extra work keeping the facility clean.  A few people possessing computer skills help others connect to on line resources such as education benefits or jobs.  And a few have cars enabling them to provide rides for fellow residents who have transportation needs not met by the VOA van.  Like any community, there are one or two, perhaps more who keep the staff informed of personal problems and rule infractions.  Even these few help to make the resource center home, as they serve as self designated security guards and subject matter for occasional friendly gossip.  Everyone likes to complain sometimes.  But all in all, we cannot help but appreciate that which has been provided. 

My own story of homelessness began last February with a dozen guns shoved in my face and a felony arrest for growing marijuana flowers in my home.  Everything of value was confiscated. Ultimately, after two months of processing, my final day in court, April 13th, gave back my freedom.  I was homeless and broke.  Living with PTSD and COPD, my future looked bleak.  As an American vet, however, I was provided healthcare, psychological counseling, and temporary domicile.  Now three months later, having resided at the VOA resource center for ten weeks, I am renewed. With help through government grants and section 8, I am living in my own apartment and attending college- preparing for a future job as a medical assistant.  Seven months ago, I had given up on my life.  Thanks to quite a bit of intervention, today I am on track to a worthwhile future.   The courts, the government, the American taxpayers, my friends, and the Volunteers of America saved my life.   

Of all the realities apparent in our great American society, I count myself fortunate.  Seven months ago I could feel nothing.  Today, I am filled with gratitude.  Thank you, one and all, --------------------------Thomas J. Zengerling