Veterans Finding a Home
Here’s what we know about America’s veterans:
- 62,000 vets will wake up homeless today.
- One out of seven homeless adults is a vet.
- Today twenty-two vets will commit suicide.
- Vets are twice as likely as non-vets to be without a job.
How can this be in a country that has twenty-five percent of the world’s wealth, greater than the entire European Union’s? Americans claim to honor the sacrifices that vets make to defend our values and way of life, yet in our communities so many vets are on the streets, jobless and floundering alone in great emotional pain. Why has this happened? What are their stories? What kind of support can we provide so they can turn their lives around?
We decided to ask the experts.
A COFFEE DATE WITH A HOMELESS VET
For many years Harvey Finkle has photographed the worlds of immigrant, homeless, and disabled communities, as well as the disintegrating schools that Philadelphia’s students attend. One of his long-standing passions has been to document the work of Project HOME since they began their campaign for the rights and dignity of people who live on the streets of Philadelphia. Project HOME is an oasis for the homeless community that offers special programs for veterans, including outreach, housing, recovery services, job training, and employment. Harvey and I asked six of the vets who are part of the PH community to tell their stories—we would record them and mix them with photos, and they would be shared at PH’s twenty-fifth anniversary celebration.
Our first encounters often began with a dance:
“Why would somebody be interested in the life of some homeless guy? I got nothing to tell.”
“Nothing to tell? You’re a survivor. The jungles of Cambodia. Alcohol. Life on the streets. You have experiences that most people can’t imagine. You’ve lost everything, and now you’re standing.”
“Let me think about it…” Usually Let me think about it means I just blew you off, forget it.
Of course: why should somebody who’s lived on the streets trust these two guys they’ve never met and answer all sorts of personal questions about wars they don’t want to remember, losses and failures they don’t want to replay, tenuous hopes they’re afraid to believe in? And with photos?
“How about meeting over coffee next week? We’ll just talk. Then you can decide.”
So we have a coffee date, no tape recorder, no cameras. Robert sits across from us in the dining room of St. Elizabeth’s, a Project HOME recovery house, and sips a fresh cup of coffee brewed by the cook who is making sandwiches for lunch. Vince shows us a couple of his paintings in the Project HOME group show, we talk about art, then get down to his story. Dionne invites us into her new apartment, a kitchen, living space, and bedroom in an elegant Center City building recently constructed by Project HOME. First, she challenges us to a variation of Name That Tune and plays theme songs from TV shows to test our knowledge of popular culture. (We don’t do half-bad, especially with pre-eighties stuff.) Having passed the test, she’s ready to listen to our proposal. We have no real agenda, other than to gain their trust. Just a rambling discussion: “Tell me about yourself.” “Growing up?” “What was the military to you?” “Why did things go south?” “How’d you find Project HOME?” “How has your life changed?” “Advice to struggling vets?” “Your dreams?” “How will you get there?
We sense a shift. These two guys really are interested in my story. Maybe.
Then we switch the conversation: “What is the most important part of your story that you would want to tell?” “You’ve got me thinking—when you mentioned how the park was your haven, or what it feels like to be depressed, or your activism in the transgendered community, or how painting is your passion, or how you feel now compared to two years ago when you were sleeping in doorways—I think that people will respond to that, will understand more. How do you feel about our exploring those themes?”
“There’s stuff I don’t want to talk about …”
“This is your story—anything you don’t want to tell, fine. You have complete control of your story, you’ll sign off on it before anyone else hears it. “
“Okay. Let’s do it.”
We make plans: Harvey says, “I’ll meet you with my camera at the house where you slept on the porch all summer, or at the park where you played with kids, or at the shipyard where you worked, or at the rally for the transgender community where you’ll be honored; or at your new job driving SEPTA buses.” Mark says, “I’ll meet you next week at the Project HOME main office, or St. Elizabeth’s, or your apartment—we’ll find a quiet room and turn on the recorder. Oh, and think of some questions you’d like me to be sure to ask you.”
For four months we record and photograph. The veterans listen to their stories, decide there are things they do not want to include, have more thoughts they want to share. We do a final edit of their stories, then, one by one, sit together with the vets in a quiet place and listen to them. The vets nod, a kind of sign-off. I do have a story to tell.
This is what we learned listening to these stories: There is no such thing as a homeless person; there are people who by dint of misfortune and wars and bad decisions and addiction and depression end up living on the streets. Family has often been their greatest loss and, ultimately, their greatest salvation. They want to believe in possibility, that with help they can change, their world can change. Work and self-sufficiency and a place to live and family are primal. For some, art is the way out of the depths; for others, social activism; for others, having a grandchild who is proud of pop-pop. They believe in superheroes because they are outsiders and show that one person can make a difference. They have great empathy for others who live on the streets and who have lost everything. They know they could not have turned their life around alone, and are committed to being there for other people who are on the streets.
Finally, finished: here are the remarkable stories of six veterans who have experienced homelessness. Thanks to each of you for sharing your lives, for being our teachers.
—Harvey Finkle, Photographer
—Mark Lyons, Philadelphia Storytelling Project
LISTEN TO OUR STORIES
[After we completed editing the recordings and photos of the veterans who had shared their lives with us, we celebrated with an opening at Project HOME’s art gallery. Photos of the vets and Vince’s art adorned the walls, and we played the stories and reflected on the journeys they tell. Over a hundred people came. As guests entered the celebration, they were welcomed by the following introduction to Vets Finding a Home.]
We are proud veterans who knew the jungles of Cambodia and the deserts of Afghanistan and Iraq, who worked as electricians on naval ships, translated Russian in Berlin during the Cold War, and monitored the weather in Korea. When we came home we found jobs as carpenters, artists, electricians, policemen, national security agents, and supervisors in manufacturing plants. We went to college.
But we struggled with haunting memories of war, with drugs and alcohol, depression. We lost our jobs. We lost our families. We learned to survive on the streets, without work, without our families, almost drowning in our addictions and depression.
We came via different paths, but eventually we all arrived at Project HOME. There we found a way out of our addiction and depression. We found a home, not just a shelter. We became part of a community that we could trust, we learned new skills. Now we work at SEPTA and the Franklin Institute, we are painting again, we advocate for the rights of the gay and transgender community, we take care of our families
We took the leap and told our stories to each other. This is risky business when one has lost everything—our families, our jobs, our self-respect, hope. We have learned to ask for help, to become part of a community. We have learned to care about the world more, to be committed to helping other homeless vets, to give back.
These are our stories.
[Thanks to the folks at Project HOME for their support of this project, and for the remarkable work they do: Rachel Ehrgood, Michael Gainer, Joan Hutton, Jen McAleese, Will O’Brien, Alexis Pugh, and Sister Mary Scullion.]
Vince Sangmeister was trained in Russian linguistics in the Air Force, and served in West Berlin during the Cold War as a “spook.” After leaving the military he began to suffer from paralyzing depression where “you decline into nothingness.” At forty he became a serious and successful abstract painter, but then the ghost of depression returned. Project HOME gave him an anchor to fight his depression, and he has begun to paint again.
“If you look at the faces of homelessness, they run the gamut of human suffering. We each have a responsibility, a human contract, to help somebody. There is absolutely no reason for anyone in this country to be without a roof over their head.”
“I want to contribute. I want to be able to help people. I have no legacy—I’m not married, I don’t have children. If you can touch the lives of others, maybe you do have something of a legacy to pass on. Hopefully, I can.” —Vince Sangmeister.
Dionne Stallworth served in the Air Force in Korea. As a child she suffered from severe depression, and at twenty-six learned that she was intersex. She now self-identifies as a woman. She has a passion for superheroes—outsiders who make a difference. She lives in an apartment in Inter-Community, a residence run by Project HOME. She is a constant advocate for the rights of minorities, the homeless and transgender communities, and people suffering from mental health issues.
“There are days that I think that we will never completely dismiss prejudice and racism and sexism. There is so much pain—and not just mine. It’s hurtful. We can do better than this.” —Dionne Stallworth
“What I do in terms of advocacy takes me out of the dark places. At the end of the day, I know that we’re here to help each other. We’re here to make the world best for all of us—not just some of us.” —Dionne Stallworth
Antoine Parks served in the US Army, and fought in the first Gulf War. He returned with severe PTSD, which led to his family falling apart and his living on the street. He was trained in Project HOME to be a SEPTA trolley operator, and works full time there and supports his family.
“Returning home from the Gulf War, with the things I’ve seen and done—it really took a lot out of me. When my wife used to come into the bedroom and wake me up, I would go at her throat.” —Antoine Parks
“I went to a shelter and was housed into a garage, and I was sleeping on the floor. It was degrading, it was miserable, and it was very humiliating.” —Antoine Parks
Earl Banks served in the Marine Corps as a combat engineer in Cambodia. He returned home with PTSD and self-medicated with alcohol. He came through the recovery program at Project HOME, and now works there, supporting other vets in recovery.
“In Cambodia we drank to get courage. When I came home, I’m saying to myself in order to get rid of these dreams I got to drink. It took the best of me.” —Earl Banks
“I’m a peer specialist here at Project HOME. I’m trying to give these guys what I got at St. Elizabeth’s. I answer the phone, I answer the door, I give out medication. I also give out advice. I can speak to the heart of these guys because I been there.” —Earl Banks.
Guy Williams served in the US Marine Corps Military Police. He worked at RCA for fifteen years, then was laid off when they took the plant to Mexico. He was trained at the Project HOME Internship Program for Veterans, and now works full time at the Franklin Institute. He plans to go to college and buy his own home.
“I’m still a work in progress. I’m very proud of me. I’m beaming. I’m beaming. My life right now is beautiful.” —Guy Williams
“Me trying to help a homeless vet? Maybe just telling him my story. And telling him, hey there is help out there—you just got to ask for it. Just ask for it.” —Guy Williams
Robert Jenkins was an electrician in the Navy, where he started doing drugs. He had a good job working in the Philadelphia Shipyard, but became addicted to cocaine and lost his job. He slept on the streets for eight years, where he found refuge in Washington Square Park. He lived in the St. Elizabeth’s recovery program at Project HOME, and is drug free.
“I don’t want to be PopPop the addict. I want to be PopPop the admiring granddaddy. One that they love and respect.” —Robert Jenkins
“Me being homeless all day, I come here. It’s a beautiful thing, being in this park. Beautiful. It gives me the freedom, it gives me the strength and courage—a peace of mind. You’re back in touch with yourself—with your inner soul. In this park you don’t feel homeless.” —Robert Jenkins
Click through the gallery below to get a more intimate look at each of our vets and their journey with Project HOME.
Mark Lyons is co-director of the Philadelphia Storytelling Project, which uses digital storytelling in their work with teens and adult learners in summer workshops, computer courses and ESL classes. Participants write stories or interview others about their immigrant experience, record, edit and mix their stories, and create short audio stories. He also does workshops with teachers on doing community oral histories. He is the co-editor of Espejos y Ventanas / Mirrors and Windows, Oral Histories of Mexican Farmworkers and Their Families, which is published in Spanish and English. He developed a theater piece from the stories in the book, which was performed by local people at the Border Book Festival in New Mexico.
He has worked in the Latino community for the last twenty five years, as a health worker and community organizer. For eight years he was the director of the Farmworkers Health and Safety Institute, a consortium of grass-roots organizations in the U.S. and the Caribbean. The Institute trained farmworkers to use theater and other popular education methods to train other farmworkers concerning health and safety issues such as pesticides, field sanitation, housing, drinking water, HIV/AIDS and workers’ rights. He also worked for several years in a community health center, as a provider and health planner.
Mark’s collection of short stories, Brief Eulogies at Roadside Shrines, was published by Wild River Books in 2014. It was chosen as a Kirkus Reviews Book of the Year. He has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, is a recipient of Pennsylvania Council of the Arts fellowships for 2003 and 2009, and the J.P. McGrath Memorial Award from Whetstone Magazine. In addition, one of Mark’s stories was performed at the Writing Aloud Literary Series at the Interact Theater in Philadelphia.
ARTICLES BY MARK LYONS
Dreams and Nightmares: Notes from the Editor, working with Liliana Velasquez
Dreams and Nightmares/Sueños y Pesadillas
The Ecuadorians of Upper Darby
Espejos y Ventanas / Mirrors and Windows: Nuestras Historias en Español
Espejos y Ventanas / Mirrors and Windows: Our Stories in English
My Power Ranger Had One Leg: The Open Borders Youth Radio Project
The Youth Radio Project: Transcripts of Audio Stories
Welcome to Open Borders
Wild River Books
Brief Eulogies at Roadside Shrines – Arnold’s Roadside Café: Route 80, North Platte
Brief Eulogies at Roadside Shrines – Holy Roller
Brief Eulogies at Roadside Shrines: Security Risk
A Celebration of Shrines
Introduction to Brief Eulogies at Roadside Shrines: The Borders That Divide Us Are the Places We Find Each Other
Brief Eulogies at Roadside Shrines: Tlaxcala Red