Veteran Shares His Story of a Life Gone Awry
Perhaps you’ve seen the posters, heard the radio announcements or read the feature stories in The Pilot.
Regardless of the means through which you were reached, St. Joseph of the Pines’ public awareness campaign (launched Nov. 1) is bringing reality to light: The faces of homelessness are among us.
“I think [the campaign] is working,” says Susie Buchanan, director of community relations for St. Joseph of the Pines. “People are talking about a subject they didn’t want to talk about before.”
In tandem with increased public awareness of the local agencies that seek to provide assistance to the homeless of Moore County, there has been an increase in “the number of [homeless] seeking shelter,” she says. “But that just means the need [for help] is greater.”
A Veteran’s Story
On a cold day in December, salt sprinkled over asphalt and sidewalks in case of snow, a man named Abel arrives at Sandhills Coalition for Human Care to share his story with Susie Buchanan over a hot lunch.
Abel is a 52-year-old veteran who attends church every Sunday. He even sings in the choir.
“I know a lot of homeless veterans right here in Southern Pines,” says Abel. “As a matter of fact, on the way over here we passed three of them.”
Currently, there are no shelters for single men (or single women) in this county. Since the Face of Homelessness campaign was launched, Susie Buchanan says she receives a phone call nearly every day, many of which are from single men seeking shelter.
“There’s nowhere to go around here,” he says. “I’ve checked.”
A friend is letting Abel stay in her home until the weather warms. He considers himself lucky.
“I know two men, both veterans, both good guys,” Abel says, “but when it gets cold like this and they can’t find a job or somewhere to stay, they’ll go in the store and steal something just to get caught. That way at least they’ll have somewhere to go.
“But I couldn’t do that,” he adds. “I just couldn’t do that.”
How It All Started
“I never expected for [homelessness] to happen to me. It’s just something that one day happened,” says Abel. “I didn’t even know it was coming.”
A series of unfortunate events dumped Abel onto the streets in 1984. A divorce left him with nothing; his job gave way with the economy. He’s been off and on the streets ever since.
“It’s hard to bounce back from the streets,” Abel says. “Those streets can make you crazy.”
As people turned their backs on him, Abel turned to drugs and alcohol.
“I got in a lot of trouble, and I’ve been to prison,” he says, followed by a sad laugh. “You kind of hate to get out of prison knowing you’re going right back to the same situation.”
Three years ago, during a dark spell when Abel was “in the streets drinking and drugging,” he stopped at the Coalition for assistance.
“I went to the bathroom and looked at myself,” he says. “I didn’t like what I saw.”
Abel knew he needed help, but first he needed to help himself. And so he did.
“I started going to church and praying,” he says. “It seems like things are slowly coming around, but you’ve got to find a job if you’re ever going to find a way out.”
And finding work is easier said that done. No one wants to hire an ex-felon, Abel explains. A record from 15 years ago is a red flag for employers.
A local fast-food restaurant recently hired Abel. They fired him the very next day.
“They saw that I had a record and told me I couldn’t work there,” he says. “I haven’t been able to get a job for about three years now. I can’t even find a job making minimum wage.”
Still, he continues his job search.
“Just about everywhere you can think of, I’ve got an application,” he says.
Abel talks about some of the other homeless veterans he knows.
“They’ve got stories,” he says, tapping on his chest, “that hurt your heart.”
How many others are there?
He counts on his fingers, rattling off six names.
“There are several more,” he says. “You wouldn’t know they were homeless just by talking with them. They are some of the nicest, kindest guys you’d ever meet.”
The same is true about Abel.
Although he shares stories of hardships — cold nights shared with slithering and snarling critters, food stamps but no means to cook — he seems to carry an air of optimism, if not blind faith.
“You know, I was blessed. All four of my kids got free rides to college. They’re doing very well, and that makes me happy,” he says with a teary smile. “It lifts my spirits to know that at least they’re doing well.”
Spending time with his grandchildren, ages 8, 6 and 2, lifts his spirits, too.
“But I can’t be a burden on [my children], they have their own lives,” Abel says. “I just want them to do well. I’m going to be OK.”
Abel praises those who work at the Coalition for the help they provide to the homeless.
“They clothe us, they feed us, they give us kerosene and transportation,” he says. “Without them, half of us wouldn’t be alive, and that’s the truth. They open their arms and help those in need. It’s hard to find people like that.”
In addition to Sandhills Coalition for Human Care, other local agencies that seek to assist the homeless include Family Promise of Moore County, the Department of Social Services, Sandhills Community Action Program, Moore County Veterans Services, Bethany House, Bethesda House, Friend to Friend and Linden Lodge Foundation.
Buchanan says the public can help by visiting iamthefaceofthehomeless.org and clicking on “Show Your Support,” where one may sign a “petition of support of the effort to do more to assist the homeless, or with monetary donations or volunteering time or goods.
“People have to realize that if someone is homeless, hungry or without clothes, it’s not because they want to be,” says Abel. “It’s just something that happened, and by all means they want to prevent it from happening again. Trust me, they don’t want to stay that way.”
To respond to the county’s call to action, contact Buchanan at (910) 246-3125 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org, or contact any of the agencies mentioned above.
Ashley Wahl is a writer for PineStraw.
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