Gaining a home
"Think about it. We've taken people from being homeless to homeownership," says Jack Downing, president of Soldier On. "These men and women who have served have lost everything, so to be able to reestablish their dignity and purpose and give them a place that is theirs allows them a great sense of belonging."
Sam Bennett, 52, knows this well. The former Army tank gunner has been homeless four times since he was honorably discharged in 1981. He became a prison guard, then served time in prison for robbery, was a drug addict, and for six years lost contact with his four daughters and their mother.
But now he has a studio apartment in the Mansfield Community, furnished like most others with donated items: "It's not a room, it's not a shelter. It's a wonderful feeling to say, 'This is mine.' When I come home, I can throw off my shoes and pick them up later or decorate any way I want. I feel normal."
Bennett is also a certified substance abuse counselor, and earns $40,000 a year as a case manager for Soldier On "helping people just like me who have the same issues I had" at the nonprofit's transitional shelter and treatment program. He lived there for a month while receiving treatment for drug and alcohol abuse. It also happens to be on the same property, just across a driveway, from Bennett's new apartment. His relationship with his family now? "Beautiful!" he says.
According to Downing, one-fifth of all homeless Americans today are veterans, many of whom lack support because they have burned their bridges with relatives. Here's why: Of the nearly 550 vets that Soldier On helps annually with emergency, transitional and permanent housing, 88 percent have substance abuse issues, and 84 percent have mental health issues.
Downing recalls that when he started at Soldier On 10 years ago, not one of the vets had any family visit them at Christmas. "It was stunning," he says. "I've worked in prisons and rehabilitation centers my entire life, and never has there been a community that not only has lost so much but has been so marginalized by everyone."
After Alan Nash came back from the Vietnam War, the now-60-year-old started drinking and "didn't know how to get help. People were calling vets terrible things and spitting at us. I felt rejected," he says. He lived in his car in Connecticut, going from campground to campground, until the car died one day. In 2003, Nash entered a veterans program for substance abuse, then wound up at Soldier On's transitional shelter before snagging his one-bedroom apartment. He loves cooking for himself, and "waited for so long to have my independence back," he says. "This is my home. It's permanent!"