THE BLOG
09/24/2013 11:29 am ET Updated Nov 24, 2013

Oh, These Gnawing Questions

"What am I going to eat today?" Curtis Lipscomb wakes up with this gnawing question. It's exactly noon on Saturday.

He lives alone in his three bedroom home on 51st and Baltimore in Philadelphia -- an empty shell of a house; its flimsy frame concealing lonely rooms, cluttered with memorabilia. There is no water running through its taps; no warmth emanating from its vents. Lipscomb can't pay the bills.

"Weekends are hard; you don't wake up by noon, you don't eat."

Lipscomb says that in order to get food on Saturdays, he has to be at a nearby church by noon. This morning he missed his chance.

Fifty-eight-year-old Curtis Lipscomb is a veteran, who joined the forces when he was 18. He served as a Quarter Masters Specialist at Fort Bragg for six years, after which he found himself in the National Guard for four years. From there he became a security guard, leaving his gig after 6 months 'to avoid paying taxes.'

It's been downhill from there.

He did odd jobs: cleaned yards here, walked dogs there; got welfare ("but not much").
"I would sell stamps for money." His eyes crinkle into a smile, revealing wrinkles etched deep into his brown skin. Straggly gray stubbornly hair pokes out from under his black beanie. There are no remnants from his once fit, machine of a body. The years have not been kind; a frayed denim jacket hangs loosely on a frayed frame.

"I feel sorry for myself."

He is unable to quite understand his trajectory to his current situation, but offers this as a substitute for an explanation, "My life fell apart when my mother died. I watched her succumb to cancer." He is old, suffers from PTSD and depression, and resigns himself to the reality that he won't get a job, and doesn't even want one.

How do people like Lipscomb fall through the cracks? It's easy to blame the individual, but the causes of homelessness are complex, many and varied. A lack of steady employment is a dangerous road leading to homelessness. But it's only one of many. More often than not, homeless occurs at the intersection of many roads.

It's complicated.

While Lipscomb's story is unique, in a way, it is all too common. The McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act defines a homeless individual as one "who lacks a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence." This definition captures the myriad different versions of homelessness. Veterans are more likely to be homeless than non-veterans: To be exact, 1.4 percent more likely for men and 2.1 percent more likely for women. According to a count on a cold January night in 2012, there are 62,619 veterans who are homeless.

This is due to a conflagration of factors. Veterans often suffer from Posttraumatic stress disorder, military sexual trauma, traumatic brain injury and other types of conflict stress.

"When you factor in regular causes of homelessness and then add conflict stress, it makes you much more likely find yourself on the streets," explains James Hammond, Chief of Social Work at the Veteran Affairs Medical Center in Philadelphia.

Besides, veterans often don't adjust well when they get home from service. "When they come back to their family there is no role for them anymore and it's a struggle to re-integrate." Hammond adds.

"One homeless veteran is one too many," remarks Jennifer Askey, Public Affairs Officer Philadelphia VA Medical Center, "they served our country for God's sake. They're our heroes!"

Lipscomb does not feel like a hero.

He spends the night in the house that his mother left him when, the growls from his empty insides lull him to sleep. Sometimes he finds respite in alcohol "you try to hustle. If you got $2 worth of pennies, you can drink a beer and go to sleep."

During the day he sits on a bench outside the CVS on 39th and Walnut in Philadelphia, where he suffers the humiliation of begging -- "my pride gets in the way, but you have to swallow your pride. You get turned down a 100 times. People look at you funny. Or they ignore you." When Lipscomb amasses enough change, he walks over to the McDonalds down the street for a meal off the dollar menu.

Lipscomb is not the only homeless man in this establishment at 2 o' clock on that Saturday afternoon. They can be found interspersed between hung-over students in sweatpants, West Philadelphian mothers with children tugging at their handbags and tired Allied Security Guards from the nearby University of Pennsylvania on break from their shifts. These homeless men are all African American, sporting dark beanies, and scruffy beards, every line on their face suggesting a story.

If only we stopped to ask.

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