I like to spend part of my lunch hour every day walking. It gets me out of the office, allows my head to clear, and gets me a little exercise. My walk takes me through the Old City in downtown Knoxville, which is a place of interesting architecture and even more interesting people. The area is frequented by suit-clad professionals, families, and more hipsters than you can shake an ironic t-shirt at! Sadly, it is also an area where many of Knoxville’s homeless can be found. I’ve had many encounters with them over the years. Most are friendly enough, ask for some money, and go about their business when you turn them down. I never give them money, but will offer to buy food for them occasionally. Most turn me down, but every so often, someone will take me up on the offer. I figure these folks truly are in trouble and I don’t mind buying them lunch.
A few days ago, an older gentleman stopped me on my walk and asked if I could help him out. He said he was a veteran and was broke. I have an especially soft spot for veterans in this condition, so I told him I would buy him something to eat if he was hungry. I didn’t really expect him to accept, but he did, so we headed off to a nearby Subway. It was a few blocks to the restaurant and he walked with a cane, so the trip took a few minutes. We had time to chat while we walked. I don’t instantly believe people when they claim to be a veteran. I usually ask what branch they were in, when they served, and where they served. A faker will have a hard time answering those questions. This gentleman convinced me pretty quickly as he rattled off his unit number without hesitation. He was a Marine, who did his basic training at Parris Island in the 1980s. I thought he was older than that, but he’s had a tough life. I’m pretty sure he was the genuine article.
He had moments of clarity and moments of confusion. I could tell he had some mental troubles, but he was mostly coherent. He said he came from Long Island, New York, but couldn’t really articulate how he came to be in Knoxville. He talked of an ex-wife who he caught cheating on him with his best friend, and how he could have killed the man but didn’t. He spoke about it like it had just happened, but then told me he had been in Knoxville for 6 weeks. In his mind, I think it did just happen. He had been a medic in the Marines, then came home to work construction. I asked if he was staying at the nearby mission, and he said he had been told to leave for some reason. He said he was on the streets and someone had stolen his jacket yesterday. He said he had no blanket or extra clothes. As I stood there and listened to his story and his lapses into confusion, I thought about how big this man’s problems were. Yeah, I fed him a meal. One meal. Where will his next one come from? When will he have another one? Where is he spending this cold, rainy night? How long can he survive on the street with winter coming? Questions to which I’ll never know the answers, but questions which trouble me.
Here’s a bigger question: how on earth is it possible for a person to serve this country and end up alone on the streets of Knoxville, Tennessee? How can this nation turn its back on these men? There is just no excuse for it. There are an estimated 40,000 homeless veterans in the US at any given time. Unacceptable. Our government has failed those who have risked everything to protect us! Many veterans are dependent on the Veterans Administration (VA) for medical and mental health services they desperately need. In many cases, they spend years waiting on treatment which they need immediately. This is just wrong and it needs to stop.
I’m not an expert on this issue, but I have a couple of ideas on how to make it better. Every person who is honorably discharged from the military should receive a card entitling them to free medical and mental health care at the doctor of their choice for life. Period. There needs to be a nationwide network of short-term housing options funded by the military for them and longer term where necessary. How can we afford this? How can we not? How can we justify sending billions of dollars to countries who openly hate us when American veterans are dying while waiting for care? How can we provide endless benefits to people who snuck into this country while those who have served it are homeless and starving? The money is there. It just needs to be put where it will do the most good, where it will allow us, as a nation, to do the right thing.
Until there is a leader in a place of sufficient power to make some hard decisions and get things done, I doubt much will happen. As is often the case, it’s up to us to do what we can to help these folks out. If you know a veteran who is at risk, be there for them. Talk to them. Find out what they need and help them figure out how to get it. Remember it is reported 22 veterans commit suicide every day. If you can afford to donate to a veteran’s organization, please consider it. If nothing else, buy a meal for homeless vet. It’s a small gesture in the face of a big problem, but the person you feed will appreciate it.