It wasn’t planned this unseasonably cool and breezy July day, but sometimes someone stumbles into our lives. That’s exactly what happened at the corner of Adams and Wabash in downtown Chicago today. I was biking along the lake and detoured into the city where I ran into a friend. I’d helped Tom Turner put together a homeless nonprofit on Chicago’s southside a bit better than a year ago. At the time Tom was on the street, struggling at the margins, when he hit upon the idea of what to do with the abandoned and foreclosed houses blighting predominantly black neighborhoods across the city. His plan worked, and this week he filed a lien in court to take full possession of the house he’s lived in and all but rebuilt for better than a year.
We were sitting in front of a little florist on Wabash, below the rattling and noisy El tracks, next to Miller’s Pub with its kitschy orange neon sign. Tom was working on the last half of a saved cigarette when a middle aged man walks up and asks Tom for a cigarette. Dropping the oversized green duffel bag to the sidewalk, the guy didn’t miss a beat when Tom replied that was all he had.
“Can I finish off that shorty, just a few puffs?”
“You bet,” says Tom.
He claimed to be a homeless veteran. You see a fair number of people in the city claiming to be. Some are. Some are not. There was something about this guy that was different.
“Charles K. Lewis, is my name,” he said immediately, and aside from Tom’s partly smoked cigarette, didn’t ask for money or anything else.
I picked up a vibe from this guy that he was not just down and out, but truly bewildered by it, and that shock and disillusionment was rather new to him. Charles in the picture is to the right of Thomas Turner.
Still, sensitive to people claiming veteran status, I respectfully and conversationally plied a few questions. What was his MOS? When did he deploy? Where did he deploy? With substantial military knowledge, a brother, friends and UN acquaintances deploying to Afghanistan, and a near visit myself to the region back in the early Nineties, I can spot BS a mile away. Not that I honestly make any greater distinction between a homeless vet or a homeless civilian. Need is need, but don’t BS me.
Charles fired back his MOS, or specialty, in the Marine Corps. He’d trained as a gunners mate, but saw combat as part of a Combined Reconnaissance Team, or CRT. He’d served from 1997 through 2008, deploying to Afghanistan at the end of his military stint. It was quickly clear that his experiences there deeply affected him we commiserated over shared combat experiences. Anyone who has suffered or experienced PTSD firsthand easily can distinguish a pretender.
Charles related how his VA benefits had been sent by mistake to his ex-wife, and could not get the issue resolved. Forced to move in with family involved, he said, with drugs, an untenable situation for Charles, he left with nowhere to go. Charles, who had been looking for work for sometime without luck had been on the street a traumatic and confusing 8 days. A friend had offered him a room in West Engelwood, but it wouldn’t be ready before the end of the week he said. Facing another 4 nights homeless, for the first time in his life, was almost too much for this proud man who is about to turn 50 in August. As we were talking another African American man overheard that Charles was recently made homeless.
“You a Devil Dog?’ said the man, a euphemism for the Marines
“Oo-rah!” replied Charles.
“Semper Fi,” the other man shot back. “Don’t you know about Safe Haven? They should have told you about that at the VA. They will get you into a place tonight.”
Safe Haven, according to their website at http://www.asafehaven.org/veterans/, has “three types of Veteran housing based on individual need, assessment and eligibility, including transitional housing, per diem housing and permanent affordable housing. Veterans have access to the appropriate level of housing which may include full wrap-around services; supportive housing and employment services; to independent permanent affordable housing. Based on the assessment and eligibility, a Veteran can start at the transitional housing stage and work their way progressively through our housing programs.”
But Charles had not heard of Safe Haven. Asking both men what they were told of veterans benefits and support when leaving the military, they simply looked at me as if I was speaking Chinese. Which begs the question of how that could happen? But the reality is that war is devastating well beyond the battlefield for many veterans. It is even more devastating when so-called support is token or hypocritical, and tendered grudgingly by politicians who use the military or their families as a populist placebo to placate and seduce working class and poor families against their better interests.
As for Charles K. Lewis, there is a sense of hurt and betrayal by a government he calls “the real criminal,” for what it has done to its veterans, and for what it is doing overseas. Charles and I are keeping in contact. There will be more on him later. Once he gets settled and catches his breath a bit we’ve vowed to sit down and tell his story in greater detail…and that we shall.
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