A couple of years ago I was asked to be a Motivational Speaker at a picnic for homeless veterans in Portland. I was quite nervous. I was worried that I couldn’t connect with them and their story. In the end I picked what was, and is, our commonality… our military experience and the values we share. I read Shakespeare to them, St Crispin’s Day speech, which is one of my favorites. From what I was told, I was successful in what I was tasked to do.
A few months later, my job was gone, I couldn’t find other work, and soon I was homeless. At times I did feel self-pity raise its head, yet for the most part I took it as an opportunity to learn. Why didn’t I go to one of the resources that I knew of for the homeless? Why didn’t I call one of the many friends that offered their assistance? I felt deep emotional currents pushing/pulling me down different paths, none of which were towards a shelter or friends. This was fascinating to me.
In the 23 days that I slept in parking lots and behind buildings and at rest stops, the last few days sneaking back into my empty apartment (I knew the maintenance people were behind schedule in turning the unit) for a few hours of sleeping on the floor. This, in no way, makes me a bonafide experiencer of homelessness. 23 days is nothing. I took showers at a local armory. I could get food readily with the cash I had saved. I didn’t experience anything near what our homeless experience in their day-to-day lives. But I got a glimpse and I try to learn from that glimpse. Of all the things that stuck with me, it was the following that still does.
One night I was driving around (I lived out of my small truck) looking for a place to sleep for the night. In Beaverton, OR there is an abandoned Circuit City (or there was) and I drove behind it and in a corner and settled down for a nap. Soon there were headlights. A police car. The officer came and tapped on my window and asked me what I was doing. I said that I was just trying to sleep. I didn’t have a home. I would move along in a few hours. He said that there was a ‘no camping’ ordinance in Beaverton and that I couldn’t stay there. He looked at my window and saw my various stickers and asked me if I was a veteran. When I answered ‘yes’ I saw the quick flash of pity across his face. That was the worse thing for me.
Now to the present day.
Most of the time I am engaged in something or other, but at times I just let myself veg-out. Driving a long trip yesterday I turned off the radio and just let my mind fantasize. What if I won the lottery? This is unlikely, notably because I never play the lottery. But it is a fun exercise to do, imagine if I won. So I was driving home and imagined all the usual stuff… give money to my family, friends, etc… typical stuff. But then I got to the ‘what would I do’ part. Instead of just going down a list of charities, I fantasized about actually doing something. There is a lot of about homelessness that is more than just people that are without a home because of employment. There are mental health issues (thanks Reagan) that I am not addressing here. I only saw one sliver of the whole, that of the homeless veteran. It is this that I fantasized about helping. Here is what I imagined…
I hire an executive assistant that knows stuff that I don’t know. Such as real estate, taxes, legal things, whatever. Then I buy a warehouse near downtown Portland. Many buildings around it are empty and the owner was happy to sell it to me and get some money back. I then light it up with inside and outside lights. It is bright. Inside I add a row of computers to a computer room. Another room is a barracks style room with beds and footlockers. There’s a box of locks and keys available for anyone. Free linen for the beds.
In another room I have a large laundry facility, no coin-ops, and lots of soap. There are showers too. In another portion I build a dozen small rooms of various sizes, 1 to 4 person rooms. The rooms and laundry and shower are open all the time.
Computer room is open only with staff. Volunteers from the community offer resume classes, and other skills teaching from time to time.
Another room is the kitchen with tools to make and cook. There are freezers and refrigerators lining the wall. I hire a permanent staff to oversee the kitchen, particularly with sanitation. But mostly this is a place where people can cook for themselves. They can store food. I’ve worked a deal with many local businesses with rotating donations of food. Some of the companies have staff volunteer to come and cook or setup a buffet table. I emphasize that the food must be healthy. I accept nothing that is detrimental, such as overly processed food. Whole food. Nourishment.
Along the walls are various flags, mottoes, insignias, etc… to fill a person with pride. Nobody pays to be here, there are no tenants, it is use as you need it. No lengthy questionnaire, no microscope, no history, no shame… just come here and regroup yourself. I’m not here to fix you. I’m just providing coffee.
In another room is a wardrobe room. Donations of suits and shirts, ties, shoes, and jackets to assist in job hunting. Local dry cleaners offer to clean for someone doing a job interview. In another room there is coffee and pastries. People congregate there. Music plays. Some of the people volunteer to ‘work’ at the cafe, though nothing is for money.
Another large room has the equipment in it… weights. Twice a day, morning and night, an instructor from some gym in the city comes and gives a WOD.
Sometimes a yoga teacher gives a class. In another room it is sparse and quiet. A meditation room. I’ve established connections with different religious traditions in the area. On various religious holidays, a local religious leader of (insert religion here) stops by to assist.
In another room is the bike room, with lots of tools and benches. Local bike shop owners give classes on maintenance. Some of the people have built their own bikes.
In another room there is the ‘theater’ where there is a regular movie night.
And here is where there is a real difference… we have formations. Every week a new ‘Platoon Sergeant’ is picked from the ‘ranks’, as are squad leaders and squads. Every person that walks in is greeted by someone who lives there. They are put in a squad, the SL meets them, and spins them up. It isn’t me, or any other people who are saving them. Give them space and they’ll take care of themselves. I recognize this is applicable only to a portion of the homeless population. I recognize that there is a need for specialized treatment, psychotherapy, and more. But I was not that, nor, I believe, are many of our homeless veterans. But I am open to seeing the data.
Not only formations, but posted Plan of the Day as well. The vets who live there are encouraged to sign up for ‘working parties’ when they are not looking for work/housing. These working parties offer volunteer services around town. They give to their community. In other words, they are not moochers taking hand outs. They are veterans who are, again, giving themselves to their loved communities. It is easier to receive services when you feel that you’ve done something in return. I know, I know… we’ve served, that is all that is needed. Not really, it is more complicated than that. But see further below for more on this.
Let me explain. I’ve been to a couple of Veteran Stand Downs as a service-provider. From Portland to Medford and in between. I’ve seen the generosity of the community as they offer services and goods to a population that needs it. But it lacked something.
I saw this 60 Minutes episode and it was night and day from what I was used to. Watch that clip. It is powerful. It has something that I’ve never seen in 6 or more stand downs in Oregon… pride. All the problems found in the homeless community are there, but there is pride in this clip. Standing in formation you can see it in their eyes. That! That bit right there is huge! How could I create an environment that allowed for pride?
After my brief stint of living in my truck, I was talking with some workers at Central City Concern about my experience. There are some wonderful people that work there and I have great respect for them. I told them that everywhere I looked at services for homeless, didn’t apply to me. They all REEKED of victimhood. The term ‘handout’ was poison to me. I wanted nothing to do with them. I told them that if there was a small room some place where I could have just showed up, checked my email (for a job I was looking for), grab some coffee, take a shower without having to make excuses or play a part, maybe do some laundry, no questions asked, no big drama, no ‘how can we help you’, I would have loved it. If, instead of a shelter of services there was something like a ‘tactical resupply checkpoint’, I would’ve been all over it. I didn’t need anyone to save me (how I felt whenever I went anywhere near some services) but I could use a resupply.
This is what I know. That veterans are different. Give them space and opportunity and get out of their way. They’ll surprise you. They can organize, plan, and execute.
Speaking, briefly, to the mental health aspects and the possibility of some having PTSD, TBI or moral injury, given a chance to step outside of the role of victim and into a role of autonomous person, is powerful. Moral injury is not easy to get over. In one study that I read (I’m looking for it again so I can cite it) the author states it takes 25 acts of heroism to balance one act of murder. It is possible that in an environment like this, they can start to work themselves out of that hole. Working on work parties, picked and chosen by the tenants. They are the ones that find the work and opportunities to volunteer. They are not a cheap labor force to abuse. They might find a school with a broken fence, or a help rebuild a playground for kids, or something of the sort. Who knows. But they are in control of their fate.
In my fantasy about this, I merely provided space and equipment and then I got out of their way. I paid staff to regularly do maintenance, food safety, security for items, etc… but that was it. If case management was needed, or more involved services, there are entities in town that did that. We were just a bad ass tactical resupply checkpoint where bad asses, who happened to find themselves homeless, could regroup.