Chris – A Veteran’s Success Story
Born in the rural south, Chris, who is now in his early 60’s, moved with his younger brother to New York City when he was 12 to reunite with his mother who had gone ahead a year earlier to find work. Through the years, Chris’s soft, thoughtful eyes have seen a long and hard struggle with intermittent homelessness.
This struggle began almost 30 years ago as he fought to adjust to civilian life after being honorably discharged from the army where he had served in a tank patrolling the Czech border. Afflicted with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), he found it difficult to hold a job and ended up in and out of shelters for several years. Almost from the start drug and alcohol use became an issue.
A recipient of the National Defense Service Medal (which he says he lost on the streets), Chris still experiences anxiety thinking back to his service. He vividly remembers sitting in a tank, during freezing temperatures, awaiting orders. With the tank engines running, black smoke filled the air making it difficult to breathe and making clear vision nearly impossible. He recalls a constant sense of dread “not knowing what was going to happen, just waiting, and just feeling helpless too often.”
Today, Chris is a positive, energetic and prideful man – as we spoke, he repeatedly suppressed smiles in order to avoid revealing a couple of missing teeth – who is determined to establish and live a sober and productive life.
We first encountered Chris through our outreach program about 24 months ago when he was living on the streets in Stamford. Shelter Outreach Case Worker Leroy Jordan found Chris and gently convinced him to come into the shelter for initial triage services – basic medical care and a long overdue string of consecutive nutritious meals. As Chris recalls, “Leroy was the first contact for me, he opened the door for me – he got me to the doc, he set me up with food stamps, he helped me get an ID, everything basically.”
Looking back on his days living on the streets Chris recalls, “It’s wretched. You disconnect from everything. All ya think about is, ya know, where you’re gonna get your next meal. Your next change of clothes, how you’re gonna get clean, where you’re gonna sleep. Ya gotta stay busy because if ya don’t you go crazy.”
Over the following weeks the shelter became a foundation for Chris as he and staff members worked together to stabilize his condition and change the trajectory of his life. Then, about 12 months ago, Leroy Jordan introduced Chris to Supportive Services for Veteran Families Program Case Manager Marie Johnson. Marie, whom Chris calls his “angel,” immediately went to work aggressively advocating that he receive a subsidized housing voucher (that would pay rent for him to live in an apartment) since he met the criteria for Chronic Homelessness and need for Case Management Services.
As a case manager working to help veterans, Marie Johnson is based at Shelter for the Homeless and works to assist homeless and at risk of homelessness veterans in lower Fairfield County with housing. In addition to housing, Johnson’s role includes linking vets to public and VA benefits such as health care.
Since March 2013, Johnson has connected five veterans to VA vouchers and they are all currently housed and pay a portion of their income toward the rent.
Thanks to Marie and the collective efforts of the shelter staff, Chris has been living in his own apartment now for about six months (he contributes $200 each month towards his rent) and with ongoing help from the shelter’s drug and alcohol recovery program is entering his sixth week of sobriety.
When asked to share what it was like to finally have a place of his own Chris shared: “It’s a whole different life for me now. Like now I’m trying to get my health together. Now I have insurance. Everything – everything is coming together.” He continued: “Now that I have my place I can kinda like plan a little more. Everything is not like snatch and grab. In other words, if you don’t know where you’re gonna sleep, if you don’t have anything to eat and you’re hungry, you’re not gonna think about anything besides getting something to eat and finding a place to stay. If you’re cold, hungry, wet, you’re locked into that. If you wanna change your clothes, simple stuff, you want to get a shower, your mind is always wondering – how long is this gonna last? Because when you got no home you know the carpet can be snatched out from under you any second, you are always on edge. So you just make the best of it – you just survive.”
Becoming emotional, Chris continued further: “Now all is good. When you are homeless you tend to hide from people, ya know, kinda stay out of the mainstream. But now it’s different. Even people treat ya different. Rather than try to exclude you, they include you – because they see you are doing better, ok? You are dressed better, you don’t smell, and your outlook on things is different. You’re not gloomy, you’re not running that sad story, so now you can do stuff for them too – not just taking from people – but now you can give.”
The road ahead for Chris is a challenging one, but he remains highly motivated and confident he will succeed at his goal of building a healthy, sober and fulfilling life.
“I’m starting to think of tomorrow more so than just today, because when you’re homeless that’s all you think about – the immediate, but now I’m thinking about like, I’ve got an appointment with the doctor, I wanna go to school, stuff like that. You know, it’s a whole different thing. A whole different mindset.”
As I was thanking Chris for meeting with me I received a text. Chris reached over, picked up my phone, shook it in his hand, looked me in the eye, and with a wry smile spreading across his lips said “Ya, know, for example, now I’m catching up. Like I don’t even know how to use these dang telephones. I gotta learn that!”
I have no doubt he will.
G and L: On the Move to a Better Life
G and L have been married almost 30 years and raised several children; however, it never crossed their minds they were ever going to be at risk of homelessness. After G, a Vietnam Era veteran, who served in the Air Force from 1971-1978 and was Honorably Discharged, was laid off from his job at a local alarm system company, they had no choice but to move in with their daughter.
Expenses exceeded their combined incomes and their daughter had to move out of the house rental. With only G’s VA pension and L’s part-time work, they, too had to leave the house. G spent several nights in a car and L stayed with friends. They both actively searched for employment and saved money but they felt they were in a hopeless situation.
The couple reached out to State Senator Carlo Leone, who, in addition to his Hartford duties, is a Program Manager at The WorkPlace in Bridgeport. Senator Leone mentioned the couple’s predicament to Marie Johnson, Case Manager with Supportive Services for Veteran Families (SSVF). The SSVF program is an in-house Pacific House shelter program made possible by a grant from SSVF.
Ms. Johnson was aware of a live-in residential manager position at a 44-unit senior residence building in Stamford and urged G to apply for it. The position comes with a small on-site apartment and a stipend. The on-site position allows the person to work during the day and be on call during the evening to assist the elderly residents.
The couple jumped at the chance, secured move in fees from SSVF and moved in mid-July. Without this assistance program, G and L might still be wondering how to help themselves out of their situation. Thankfully, they are in a much better situation and can look forward to their future.
“All told I fell on my face. As a person who grew up in an orphanage with little life skills...
...I moved here to make a better life for my family. But fitting in wasn’t as easy as I thought. I ended up living in my truck in a parking lot in Norwalk while my family waited for me to bring them from Jamaica.
I came to Shelter for the Homeless and got more than just a roof over my head but a compass and a strategy from people who clearly know what they are doing. I would like to thank the shelter for having the system that would take in an individual and provide things that could result in him eventually going back to his family more resolute.
My job at the shelter, the day I got taken in, was keeping the kitchen clean and later serving in the kitchen. You get a sense that you were being told that ‘look, whatever your situation, you need to be responsible for something.’ Velma Clark, Residential Manager, was the person to make the first positive impact on me. Just observing how Velma supervises the day-to-day activities, and with her accessibility, if you have questions, caused me to be a more effective worker at my own job.
From there I encountered Leroy Jordan, Outreach Case Worker, who steered me in the direction of attaining my own apartment at The Patricia C. Phillips House, administered by the shelter. By this time I had begun going back to school and working. I had become a functioning human being with a routine again.
I was able to support my family and visit them on the weekends. I had time and space to reflect on the course of my life. The efforts of the shelter filled me with so much goodwill for Stamford that I volunteered at St. Luke’s afterschool program and at The Tully Center. Finally, I relocated my family here. My wife leaves for work in the morning, the school bus comes to pick up my daughter at eight, I home school my son using the Montessori Method until next September when he starts school.
Thanks to Internet I do most of the few classes I have left online. I have done most of my sciences and math classes, I am a Personal Stylist for a well-recognized brand, and I am well on my way to be able to replant myself back into the American society.”
D has enough credits at Norwalk Community College to apply for Nursing School or attain a business degree, and again Leroy Jordan helped him secure a new apartment where the entire family can begin their new lives!
In the summer of 2010, Rick walked through the doors of Pacific House frightened, alone, and not knowing what to expect. He did know he had goals he was determined to achieve – most of all to finally live independently and have his own home. Rick was determined to take advantage of anything the shelter had to offer to help make this happen.
Within just a few short weeks, after years of drug dependency and living on the streets, and years filled with loneliness, pain and frustration, Rick was well on his way to self-sufficiency thanks to his determination, the stability provided him by having a reliable source of food and shelter, and the support of a dedicated team of case workers and counselors.
Rick went on to complete the SFH recovery program and then both the SFH life skills, and workforce preparation programs. Today he has been drug and alcohol free for more than three years and is a valued employee at a local restaurant where he has been steadily employed for well over a year.
For Rick, most important of all, today he is living independently in his own home.
After leaving Pacific House Rick was determined to give back, “because I was and am so grateful for everything they had done for me; and I knew that being part of the Pacific House family was where I needed to be.”
Not only does he currently volunteer by working alongside our staff helping to serve meals, Rick also works hands-on with clients through the SFH Outreach Program. “I spend time talking to people who are homeless about the programs available to them, which can help them get a place of their own … just as I was able to.”
Says Rick: “People often ask me why I still come to Pacific House; why I want to hang around a homeless shelter. I look at them, smile and simply say ‘the place saved me – I want to help save people like me’.”
From serving our country to sleeping in his car
Reinaldo enlisted in the Army in 2009, 25 years old and eager to serve his country. He was a young husband, and father of a boy and girl. After training as a Signal Support Systems Specialist he was based in Bamberg, Germany, served three years and was honorably discharged. He excitedly moved back to Stamford ahead of his family, intent to set up a home and find employment. He looked forward to civilian life with friends and family. He could now take the kids to school, attend birthday parties, and host backyard barbecues.
Unfortunately, the marriage did not work out and Reinaldo moved out of his family’s home in early 2013. With no job, and no house, he lived in his car in a small parking lot in Norwalk. Things looked bleak – not at all how he envisioned his life.
Supportive Services for Veterans & Families Program
This in-house shelter program made possible by a grant from SSVF assists veterans and their families who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless. Reinaldo’s case manager worked with him to devise a plan, arranged referrals to several veterans’ assistance programs, and helped him navigate through the sometimes confusing maze of paperwork and applications. A new apartment awaits and he is now interviewing for jobs.
Aaron speaks quietly and confidently about his life. Though he certainly has regrets, he is not ashamed of his past – he accepts it and understands he would not be who he is today without it.
Aaron knows that Pacific House, with its emergency shelter and recovery program, has been a constant source of hope and support through his years of struggle – years that have been hard, but have left him a better man.
A Stamford native, Aaron first started using drugs at 13 and eventually drifted into life on the streets. Now 42, he has been drug-free for five years – but many of the years in between were spent either incarcerated or in and out of shelters.
“The people from Pacific House were always there for me with an open door.” After going through the recovery program and staying drug-free for several years, Aaron applied for and was accepted into the SFH Supported Housing Program.
Aaron recently completed an environmental training program and obtained a license for asbestos removal. Now he is working on getting his GED degree.
In the future, he says he might like to work in social services: “I want to do something where I relate to people, where I use my experience to help them, to help them not make the same mistakes I made.”
“I can show them how the people at the Shelter did not give up on me and how they won’t give up on them.”
Aaron believes that “sooner or later a door will open” and he will find work where he can make a significant contribution.