By Amy Guckeen Tolson, USAG RedstoneJanuary 14, 2011
REDSTONE ARSENAL, Ala. -- Neal Wheelis was just 17 when he vowed to defend the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic, and joined the Coast Guard. Today he is homeless.
It was the adventures promised by the 95-footers and chase boats of the Coast Guard in the 1970s that attracted Wheelis to the military, and his love for country that led him to drop out of his Jacksonville, Fla., high school and join Sept. 11, 1977. Before he knew it, the young man was living the life, serving in Hawaii, Alaska and California, making $433 a month and learning his "yes sirs" and "no ma'ams."
"I loved it," Wheelis said of his time in the Coast Guard. "I wanted to do something to help people."
More than 30 years later, the 50-year-old who once helped rescue a man whose mast had snapped on his boat is now the one in need of help.
Homelessness, as classified by the U.S. Code, includes persons who lack a "fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence," those in shelters "designed to provide temporary living accommodations," as well as those that are living in "a public or private place not designed for, or ordinarily used as, a regular sleeping accommodation for human beings."
The 2009 U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Annual Homeless Assessment to Congress, released in June, estimated there are 6,080 homeless persons living in Alabama, up from 5,387 in 2008, 2,167 of whom are unsheltered.
"The contributing factors to homelessness could be family discord, underemployment, unemployment, poor money management skills, alcohol and drug abuse and mental illness," said Willie J. Fields, coordinator of homeless programs for the Birmingham VA. "Often people are dealing with a combination of all of those things. Everybody that becomes homeless is not necessarily a substance abuser."
On any given night in America, an estimated 107,000 veterans may be going to sleep without a home, according to Veteran Affairs' annual CHALENG (Community Homelessness Assessment, Local Education and Networking Groups) report, with an estimated 721 of those residing in Alabama. Of the approximately 400 homeless in the Tennessee Valley, more than half are estimated to be veterans.
"No matter where I've settled down, you always run across a vet," said Wheelis, who has spent the past decade homeless. "You swap stories and compare this, that and the other. We stick together."
Wheelis' story is not so different from other vets he has met in his time on the streets. After serving with the Coast Guard, he went back to civilian life, living with his dad and working a steady job. After his company was downsized and he found himself unemployed, Wheelis cashed in his 401K and set off on what was to be a great camping trip. Denied access to Canada due to too much ammo and the fact that he was carrying a pistol in his vehicle, his hopes of making it to Alaska were dashed. When his Jeep broke down, Wheelis did the one thing he could think of - he started wandering. As he would lean against guardrails for a break from his uncharted journey, he discovered that people would stop and offer him handouts. One handout led to another, and by the time Wheelis' money ran out he had already adapted to the homeless life.
"It gets easy to adjust to the lifestyle," said Wheelis, who was often surprised by the generosity of others, including one man who gave him the jacket off his back. "You'd be amazed at how many nice people there are out there."
In his 10 years of living off the land, his feet have taken him to places like Montana, Idaho, Oregon, Washington, D.C. and Florida, where the handouts have been relatively easy to find, but life on the streets not always. He's endured torrential rains in Florida, the kind that flooded his tent no matter how many tarps he had, and left his clothes moldy and filled with mildew long after the clouds rolled away; been forced to swallow his pride and ask managers for keys to public restrooms in Washington, D.C.; and has learned the survival tips of the streets, such as finding air ducts that blow hot air out at laundromats to sleep near, a prime piece of real estate for the homeless. Now 50, Wheelis is ready for a change.
"You kind of just put things off," he said of the homeless lifestyle. "I need to start doing something. I'm 50 years old, it's like come on."
For homeless veterans looking for a helping hand, there are places in the Tennessee Valley to turn for help. Shelters such as the Downtown Rescue Mission and Salvation Army provide those on the streets with shelter when needed, as well as opportunities for food and classes and programs to help them get back on their feet. First Stop, a daytime program, gives the homeless case management services, as well as transportation and referrals services, and access to a phone and mailing address for those seeking employment.
At the Downtown Rescue Mission, individuals are given food to eat, a hot shower and place to sleep and even do laundry, according to Dr. Kerry Walker, who manages men's services for the mission. Individuals are allowed to stay at the mission for up to 15 days a month, unless they provide documentation that they are actively searching for a job, or temperatures at night dip below 40 degrees. In 2010 the mission slept a total of 67,329 within their walls. Walker estimates between 20 and 30 percent of those were veterans.
"You always have more you can do," Walker said. "We know that there's a significant number that don't come to the shelter for some reason or another."
Veterans in the Tennessee Valley have benefited from a respite designed just for them for the past four years at Operation Stand Down Huntsville, which gives them a chance to receive a hot meal, medical care, legal assistance, employment information, haircuts, showers and much more over the course of three days in November. Part of a national organization that holds stand downs across the country, the idea originated from the military term "stand down" which allows combative Soldiers the opportunity to rest and recuperate from battlefields in a safe and secure location.
"We do it in the same token," said Darrell Delaine, chairman of Operation Stand Down Huntsville, which was held at Joe Davis Stadium Nov. 12-14. "We bring the veterans off the street and then tell them to just stand down. We try to provide a secure location, food and a place to sleep."
For some veterans, asking for help may be the biggest challenge of all. Operation Stand Down provides them with the chance to be with other individuals coming from a similar background, providing a camaraderie they may not get at the average homeless shelter.
"The biggest thing is swallowing their pride and asking for help," said Shannon Young, who is working with a new organization that will reach out specifically to homeless veterans in North Alabama. "They have to stand up and say, 'I supported our country, I fought for us and now I need somebody to help me.' It's a really hard pill to swallow."
Former Garrison commander and retired Col. John Olshefski, now Huntsville District 3 city councilman, spoke at the opening ceremony for the 2010 Stand Down, and was amazed at the number of veterans living in the Huntsville area.
"I was taken aback by the number," Olshefski said. "That's 50 too many. I struggled with one. There's too many here that we can help."
Seeing veterans homeless in a community that is so military-centric is mind boggling for Donnie Jones, who has dedicated the past four years of his life to homeless veterans through his work as entertainment and media relations for Operation Stand Down Huntsville.
"They can build the weapons that these people operate, but when they come home broken they can't help them'" Jones said. "I don't understand why the community has turned such a blind eye to homeless people. Don't think that they're a bum. Don't think they have no value. Everybody's got a story."
"What it comes down to is we're all about our veterans," Olshefski said of the Huntsville community. "Veterans are on hard times. If we got one off the street, then we've hit a home run. It's something we need to do here in this town."
In the spirit of his work with Operation Stand Down, Jones is launching a new organization, Operation Stand UP! Tennessee Valley, which will serve homeless veterans year-round, as opposed to only three days out of the year. For Jones, who spends much of his free time throughout the year with the homeless veterans he has met through Operation Stand Down, offering legal advice, taking individuals to doctors appointments and job interviews, as well as providing sleeping bags, food, clothing and other necessities when needed, he is simply taking his passion for veterans to the next level, and inviting the entire community to get involved.
"These are people that were once entrusted with billions of dollars of equipment, they were in charge of other people," Jones said. "I want people to look at homeless veterans in a different light, change the perception. These are people that still have something to offer their country and I'm just trying to provide a voice for them. I want to be their advocate."
Journalistic curiosity drew WAAY 31 reporter Ross Sather to the 2010 Operation Stand Down, but it is thanks to the more than 50 veterans he met while on assignment that has him involved with Operation Stand UP! today as co-chair of the organization with Jones.
"Seeing is believing," said Sather, who was in awe at the numbers that were fed, clothed and given shelter at the event. "These are men and women who so bravely took an oath to defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies foreign and domestic, and who knew what could possibly come with that. They're coming back and somehow slipping through the cracks. Some end up on the streets. I don't think anyone wants their son or daughter to go through that."
To ensure that ceases to happen, Operation Stand UP! aims to help homeless veterans find work and housing, and provide them with the tools needed to re-establish themselves. As an outreach provided exclusively for veterans, the organization will be able to meet the unique needs of the homeless veteran population.
"If they've been on the streets 10 to 15 years, you have to give them the tools so that they aren't setting up to fail," said Young, who will help coordinate volunteers for Operation Stand UP!. "You have to teach them how to manage a home again, how to manage bills and groceries and finances."
The 501(c)3 nonprofit organization is currently seeking advisers from the community to go that extra mile and help the organization develop their plan of action and make the connections possible to put the plan into place.
"My long-term goal is ending homelessness," Jones said. "It's a lofty goal and people are going to laugh at me."
The Department of Veterans Affairs itself has made the commitment to end homelessness among veterans within the next five years, a task they are accomplishing through a variety of resources and programs that both respond to and work to prevent homelessness, like a National Call Center that allows for vets that are homeless, or at risk of becoming homeless, to call in for counseling.
"I think it is a realistic goal," Pete Dougherty, director, VA Office of Homeless Programs in Washington, D.C., said of the VA's commitment to end homelessness, fueled largely by the leadership of retired Gen. Eric Shinseki, secretary of Veterans Affairs. "That does not mean that there literally won't be a person who becomes homeless. We will have the capabilities of making sure any veteran who is homeless will have an appropriate place to stay and appropriate health care services to resolve the problem. In the past if every vet who needed assistance was coming to us, we wouldn't be able to do that."
As part of the VA's work, an outreach worker from the Birmingham VA travels regularly to hospitals and shelters in the Huntsville area to locate homeless veterans in need of help. Through a collaboration with HUD and the VA, veterans are also given the opportunity to participate in the HUD and VA Supported Housing Program, which gives them vouchers to Section 8 housing where VA case management treatment services are close by, allowing veterans to receive both housing and the treatment they need at the same time. Currently, 35 of those vouchers have been issued in the Huntsville area, according to Fields, with an anticipated 35 to 40 still needed.
Prevention has also become paramount to the VA in their efforts. To keep veterans from ending up on the streets in the first place, the VA specifically plans to increase the number of housing options for veterans, provide more support services to increase the possibility of employment and independent living, as well as improving access to VA mental health, substance abuse and support services.
"For us, homelessness among veterans has really been the deterioration of my social network, of my service network if you will," Dougherty said. "It's a deterioration of my job and the deterioration of my health. And generally speaking we weren't seeing you until it was a deterioration of your health. What we're now trying to do is look at this from the standpoint of what can we do to keep your social network intact, to keep your employment intact, to keep your immediate family intact and to make sure that health problems that you're having that contribute to homelessness are addressed earlier on. It's sort of what we did 15 years ago, when we went from a hospital-based system to a health care system. Now, most of our services are really preventative health care to keep me well and keep me healthy."
Ending homelessness among veterans is a task that is proving to not be impossible. The number of homeless vets has dropped from 250,000 in 2004 to 107,000 in 2009, and approximately 4,500 access points exist across the country as places for homeless veterans, or veterans in need, to turn to for help, according to John Driscoll, president and CEO of the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans, which serves as the resource and technical assistance center for homeless veteran service providers across the country. Of the 2,100 providers listed on the coalition's website, none are located in the Huntsville area.
Sitting on a bench at the Madison County Veterans Memorial site in downtown Huntsville, Sather marveled at the hundreds of thousands of dollars going into the project, which will cost approximately $3 million once it is complete, and what could change for homeless vets if the community put even just a fraction of an effort into their cause.
"Not to take anything away from those who have died serving their country, or those who have served and are now living successful lives, but to also give to those who also served, and for whatever reason didn't have that chance," Sather said.
Challenging both himself and others to not just talk the talk, but walk the walk as well when it comes to helping homeless vets, Jones doesn't have to look far in his own life to find ways he has changed a homeless vet's life.
It was a simple question that stopped Jones in his tracks. "Where can I put my tent up'"
It wasn't the first time Jones had seen the man with his bike, laden with 200 pounds of belongings, such as a tent, sleeping bag, clothes, boots, water, canned goods, cooking gear and hygiene products, on his drive from his home in Grant to Huntsville. The steamy June sun and concern for the man gave Jones enough pause to get him to pull over and ask the seemingly homeless traveler if he needed help, but the response he received was not what he was expecting - it wasn't a plea for money, food, alcohol or tobacco, but rather, a plea for safety and rest. As Jones would come to realize, the man beneath the dirt, sweat and grime of the streets was Wheelis, a veteran that had served his country from 1977-81.
"Just because they're homeless doesn't mean they don't have the same honor and integrity that made them put on the uniform," Jones said. "It's just covered with poverty."
Jones gave Wheelis more than just directions on where to put his tent up, but gave him an entire barn located on his property in Grant, where Wheelis' tent has proudly sat since June. In exchange for using Jones' home to bathe, use the restroom and share meals, Wheelis serves as the handyman for the 11 acres, fixing lawn mowers and weed eaters, doing yard work, sewing and helping out Jones' mother and her friends when needed.
"I like putting stuff together and taking it apart," Wheelis said.
As the winter chill has set in, the invitation has been extended for Wheelis to stay inside Jones' home. But for the man who has spent the past decade living off the land, the pitched tent inside the barn remains his preferred home, where he can go about his daily business, waking between 4 and 5 every morning to feed the cats, make the coffee, and listen to the news on NPR. Highlights of his days include listening to "A Prairie Home Companion" and "Car Talk" as well as the Star Trek novels Jones says he reads "voraciously." In the new year, he plans to search for a job, and to volunteer with Jones' new organization, as well as others that help the homeless.
"I've been given so much I don't mind volunteering and giving back," Wheelis said.