Red, White and Blue

Posted: June 20, 2007 in Health, Homelessness, Veterans

There is nothing about homelessness that I find enjoyable. In fact, everything about homelessness bothers me, in particular: children and veterans who are homeless.

The number of children who are homeless each year is staggering. The number of veterans who are homeless is equally disturbing.

"Stephen" is currently one of San Luis Obispo’s homeless community. He is one of approximately 500,000 veterans who experience homelessness each year. His tour of duty took him to Viet Nam, where he was wounded. He came "back to the world" in 1971 when he was discharged. An accomplished and talented guitar player (I know because I’ve heard him play), Stephen was recently diagnosed with colon cancer.  

When I first met him about a year ago at the Maxine Lewis Memorial Shelter, he seemed to be getting along okay. Other than the infirmities that all of us tend to get as we age, and some disability as a result of his combat wounds, Stephen seemed to be in reasonably good health.

Not long afterward, he left SLO to visit with family and travel around a bit. When he returned about a month ago, I was shocked to see that he had lost weight – and quite a bit of weight. I didn’t realize just how much weight he had lost until I asked him about his colon cancer. It was during that brief conversation he mentioned that he had lost about 60 pounds as a result of the disease.

He told me there was a surgical procedure he could undergo to remove his colon. It would ease some of his physical discomfort, but that the disease has progressed beyond a point of successful recovery.

Perhaps what disturbed me most was when he told me that his homelessness was his choice. He had the ability to have a place to live, but that he preferred the lifestyle of homelessness.

I cannot say I fully understand why a person would choose being homeless to having a place to live, but as a veteran who served his country, Stephen is more than entitled to that choice. As someone who has worn the uniform of his country, he has earned the right to make the choice and, no one has the right to belittle or criticize that choice.

Still, what bothers me most isn’t the choice Stephen has made for himself, but the indignities which I know all homeless persons must endure from the mainstream community. And for a veteran to be treated in such a manner – whether he chooses to be homeless or not – grates loudly against my moral and social conscience.

Later that afternoon, I kept "replaying" the conversation that Stephen and I had had and I couldn’t help but wonder how many other veterans feel the same was he does. How many have chosen to remain homeless because they feel more comfortable with the lifestyle of a homeless person than they do with becoming part of the mainstream community?

Homeless or not, our veterans are our country’s responsibility. We have taken young men and women and have turned them into warriors. It seems to me an obscenity that we should not honor them for the sacrifices they’ve made – sacrifices that have left many of them permanently scarred.

But as Stephen said to me:

"Sure, I could check myself into some nursing home and trade war stories with other vets, but I don’t do that. I’m homeless because I choose to be. I found a lifestyle that I’m comfortable with."

As a coda to this post: although it isn’t my place to try and convince Stephen otherwise, I hope that he will find a place where he can spend the remainder of his life in peace and serenity.

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