Wednesday, January 8, 2014

From the front lines to the shadows.

On a recent weekend morning I found myself interviewing some apparent homeless people in St Paul. This is their story.

Walking near the railroad tracks along the river below St Paul there are a few men and one woman, there is a dog, mangy, dirty, and vigilant in its watch over the people he follows. This group looks disheveled, grungy, dressed in multiple levels of clothing, two or three coats, mismatched mittens, worn out boots and each one of them carries a bundle or a backpack with various implements attached below it and a bed roll strapped atop the bundle. The air is bitter cold, its 7am, the sun is just coming up and the temperature hovers around freezing, that’s not including the wind-chill from the breeze coming off of the river. Each exhale from their lips seems to crystallize and fall to the ground as they walk. They have to walk at this hour, it’s always coldest as the sun rises and if they were to remain sleeping at this hour they might freeze to death where they lay. They’ll sleep in the afternoon when the temperature is at its warmest.

We all see these folks once in a while and wonder where they are going, why are they here and why don’t they just get a job. They may tell you that it’s difficult to get a job when you don’t have a place to live, a place to shower and sleep each day, a place in which to prepare for a day’s work. Would you hire someone that looks like this, would you trust them with a job? Jason is the youngest of this group, he is 29, he has long scraggy hair, his hands are strong, he has wide shoulders and deep concerning eyes that spend a lot of time scanning the horizon, he appears suspicious and rarely says a word. He also walks with a serious limp; it looks like his left foot canters out to the side just a bit allowing his ankle to roll forward each time he steps. I asked Kevin about Jason’s leg, Kevin is a big man, he stands over six feet and might weigh in at 230lbs, but it’s not in his stomach, he looks like a wrestler, and he is very soft spoken, smiles a lot too and likes to crack jokes about lawyers. He told me that Jason tripped when he tried to jump onto one of the rail cars last year and broke his ankle, he went to the free clinic but they said he needed surgery and he couldn’t afford it. Kevin said it is ironic since Jason served three tours in South West Asia, he was in Pakistan and Afghanistan, he was in the Marines, he was a squad leader and lost a few men in a couple of his teams during his time over there. He never sustained any injuries when he was in, but when he came home he couldn’t hold a job anymore, he’d lost his patience and his ability to navigate daily life without the parameters of fear and threat to respond to. Kevin is a veteran, he served his country, Jason says he speaks of it with pride and doesn’t hold anyone to blame over his misfortune, he just can’t handle regular life anymore. Says nobody showed him how when he came home.

Kevin’s story is not uncommon, in fact with as many young men and women as we have coming home now from overseas as we do, we have even less jobs to offer them. These men and woman have learned skills most of us never will, they served our country and the country of those less fortunate, providing a safe environment for children to go to school, making certain our way of life remains free from tyranny, religious persecution and terrorism. They stood in the street of Fallujah fighting terrorists from all over the world; they watched their brothers and sister fall beside them, watched as their counterparts fell before them in the name of some misguided religious zealot. And now they walk on the outskirts of downtown, and along the trails in the suburbs trying to survive within the shadows, battling scrutiny from society and ghosts of their experiences overseas.

It isn’t only the young and uneducated vets that end up in this place, it also happens to more distinguished vets like AF Colonel Robert Freniere; ( with three graduate degrees he served as an aide to pentagon brass before retiring. Now Colonel Freniere is homeless too, he has no obvious injury or major battle scars, but he has fallen into a place that seems to be flooded by educated and uneducated vets alike, who despite trying just can’t seem to get hired, even with all that they have to offer. The Obama administration has said it’s a focus of theirs to place these vets back into the workforce, but they aren’t the ones hiring them, a politician’s promise doesn’t put food in their bellies or a roof over their heads. It comes down to the responsibility of the business that fly the American flag outside their doors to seek out and open their doors to these men and woman, to welcome them back into the world they fought so bravely to secure. It is also the responsibility of the educational institutions’, and to each and every one of us to recognize these folks, whether or not you agree with their sacrifice, it is still a sacrifice; these men and woman did not serve us, to protect our freedoms and our rights to practice the religions of our choice, for a profit, they didn’t do it for the fame, they did it because they believe someone must make those sacrifices, they did it because they were able to stand up, look into the face of danger and apply a value on freedom, that value is and was their very own lives.

Kevin made that sacrifice, and continues to do so. He isn’t bitter, but takes pride in that he helped protect the belief that we all are entitled to the opportunities’ to make something of ourselves, so that his little sister back in Fargo and his boyhood buddies can go to school and study whatever they want to, he sacrificed himself so that they, and many of the rest of us wouldn’t have to.

v  The names I used in this post, Jason and Kevin, are not the real names of those individuals, but they and their stories are as they reported them to me. The one I named Kevin showed me his dog tags without hesitation.

v  According to the National Coalition for the Homeless

Ø   One fourth of all homeless are veterans.

Ø  40% of all homeless men are Veterans.

Ø  3% of homeless veterans are female.

v  According to the Department of Veterans Affairs

Ø  85% of homeless veterans completed high school, compared to 56% of non-veterans.

Ø  There are approximately 131,000 veterans whom are homeless on any given night.