When things fall apart

When people hear about the homeless living in the woods alongside Long Island’s highways, most shake their heads in disbelief. Unfortunately, out of sight is out of mind, but the homeless are there nonetheless. I’ve often wondered what would happen if they slept on the roads’ shoulders instead, for the world to see.  I happen to believe that the good people of Long Island would take action immediately to help.

At least that’s been my experience as CEO of Catholic Charities, one of the largest human service agencies in the region.  To be sure, in an area blessed with wealth, poverty will often go unnoticed. That is, of course, until Long Islanders are made aware of it, in which case they indubitably respond.

It’s in that light that I share with you the true story of Michael, a formerly homeless Army veteran from Long Island who, as he describes it, has spent his life trying to make some good out of the bad.

His struggles started early. At the age of 13, he was placed in foster care by an abusive mother, but he spent those formative years “learning how to survive.” In his old neighborhood, surviving meant working, so Michael did everything from delivering papers to cooking fast food.  He knew he had to do more and it was in 1984 that Michael decided that the route to a more secure future for him and his young family lay in military service. He enlisted in the Army and was soon deployed throughout the United States, as well as Panama and Japan, but it was in Korea that he spent most of his service.

There he guarded the border of the demilitarized zone. His was considered a “hardship tour,” one that forces families and soldier apart for long periods of time.  It was also where he was accidentally sprayed with a gas that caused irreparable damage to his nervous system and where he also developed the keloid scars that now disfigure his face.

When he came home he found himself disabled, estranged from his wife and children and unable to secure a job. It wasn’t long before this man who had prided himself on his ability to provide found himself anxious, depressed, and unemployed.  Eventually, he returned to the home of his aging mother, who unexpectedly died on his birthday. The sheriff’s department boarded up the house, and Michael was out in the street.

That’s where our soldier stood.  He was out of the service, out of a family, out of a mother, out of a job, out of a home, and he was even beginning to think he was out of his mind.

That’s also when he found Catholic Charities and our newest program, Project Veterans Independence. We gave him a peaceful, safe and dignified place to live while he focused on therapy and getting his life back in order. Most people want the same things out of life: good health, good work, a dignified place to live, and family and friends to share it with.  People deserve nothing less and a veteran who served our country honorably deserves even more.  Many don’t find it.

And after all he’s personally suffered, that’s what worries Michael most, that there are thousands of men and women just like him, returning from the service disabled, depressed, and homeless and not enough people know about them yet. I promised him I would help change that by sharing his story.

Michael knows that even when you spend your life doing what’s right, things can still fall terribly apart, but he graciously thanked Catholic Charities for helping him.  I pass those thanks on to you because Catholic Charities isn’t an office or program. Catholic Charities of Long Island is a community, one made up of thousands of people just like you who help pick up the pieces when things fall apart.