Bell and his wife, Joella, often find themselves living on the streets of Oklahoma City, but they don’t ask for pity. The 11-year vet knows the mistakes he has made and is working to right his wrongs. “We all put ourselves in these positions, and we have to be responsible,” he said.
Bell was one of hundreds of homeless and disadvantaged veterans who received a variety of services, care and supplies at the 13th annual Sooner Stand Down event Oct. 18 at The Homeless Alliance WestTown campus in OKC.
The vets received camouflage backpacks, clothes, hygiene kits, boxed lunches and bottled water.
About 40 service and healthcare agencies provided health screenings, dental care and mental health services. Veterans also received help with housing, employment, legal issues, spiritual guidance and substance abuse counseling.
Humble and hopeful
Bell, 53, admits his homelessness was “a self-inflicted wound, if you will,” thanks to three DUI convictions. He served jail time and has been on probation. Unable to legally drive, Bell and his wife use OKC’s Metro Transit bus service to get around.
Speaking with Oklahoma Gazette outside the Homeless Alliance, Bell was articulate and humble when describing his past and hopeful when talking about his future.
“It (homelessness) never crosses your mind. It happens when it happens, and then reality sets in,” he said. “I have an interview for a full-time job today, so we’re trying to get out of this and on with our life.”
During his stint in the military, Bell was stationed in Korea, Japan and the Philippines before his discharge due to an injured leg. Bell served in the Air Force from 1979 to 1990. In addition to his military training, Bell also has two years of college under his belt.
Before leaving for his interview, Bell said part-time, temporary work put a roof over the couple’s head. “When I get temp work, we usually have enough money for a good motel,” he said. But when the work dries up, it’s back to the streets.
“Usually, we stay around the railroad tracks along Western. You have to hide off the beaten path.”
Paraphrasing a Marine slogan, Bell smiled and said, “You have to adapt and overcome.”
Stories all too familiar
Accounts of veterans who become homeless and unemployed after leaving the military are commonplace, said Homeless Alliance Director Dan Straughan. That’s why the annual Sooner Stand Down is so important, he said.
“This is unique because it brings all the agencies — VA, HUD, employment — all under one roof. The services vets get depend on when they were in the military, where they were stationed and if they were in a combat zone. Many vets are not eligible for many services, so during Stand Down, everyone is eligible for everything,” Straughan said.
About 67,000 veterans nationwide are homeless on any given night, and about 144,000 experience homelessness at some point during the course of a year, according to the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development estimated there were at least 350 homeless vets in Oklahoma last year. In January 2013, the agency reported 221 homeless veterans in OKC alone.
For Navy veteran Bruce Stevens, the past 35 days have been a renewal of sorts. It’s the longest he has been sober in 20 years.
Given the homeless label by the U.S.
Veterans Administration, Stevens actually is a resident at one of the 18 Oxford drug recovery halfway houses in OKC, but that’s temporary. Stevens spent four years (1993-1997) as a combat radioman, was discharged because of an injury and then spiraled downward with addictions to alcohol and drugs. He hit the streets of several U.S. cities.
“It was 11 years (after being discharged) that I got involved with the VA,” he said. “For a long time, I didn’t trust anybody with the government.”
Now in a VA substance abuse program, Stevens also spends time counseling other homeless vets. “I know the experience of an addict. I know the street life,” he said. “The streets here are pretty fucking rugged. People will beat you down and leave you for dead.”
Former Marine Corps band member Maurice Williams lives precariously, but always with a smile and laughter. Although he has lived on the street, stayed in shelters and slept in a car, Williams wants to stabilize his life with full-time employment as a music teacher.
Williams has already worked as a substitute music teacher at Guthrie High School several times this semester. He has also moved into a rent house — at least for the next month or two.
also has played trombone for ballroom dance bands, marching bands and
cruise ship bands. Performing, he said, keeps a little bit of cash in
his pockets. “I had musical skills, so I could hustle up a gig here and
there,” Williams said. He was a member of the Marine Corps band from
1978 to 1982.
Homeless Alliance: 415-8410, homelessalliance.org
• National Veterans Administration Homeless Hotline: 1-877-424-3838
• Oklahoma VA Homeless Program: 456-1708
• Healthcare for Homeless Veterans: 456-1893
• Grant and Per Diem Program: 456-5759
• Housing and Urban Development/VA Supported Housing: 456-5768 or 415-8445
• Friendship House: 456-5758
• Compensated Work Therapy: 456-1885
• Veterans Justice Programs: 456-1761
• Healthcare for Re-entry Veterans: 456-1762