IMPACT
07/30/2015 12:27 pm ET Updated Aug 04, 2015

In His Own Words, Iraq and Afghanistan Vet Recounts Journey From Homelessness To Hope

There's help out there for homeless veterans. They just need to know where to find it.
Damon Dahlen/Huffington Post

 

There were over 67,000 homeless United States military veterans in 2011. Craig Hinds -- who served two tours of duty in Afghanistan and Iraq  -- was one of them.

But in 2012, Hinds, now 37, found a place to live: the Jericho Project's veterans-only Kingsbridge Terrace apartment building in the Bronx, a borough of New York City. The Jericho Project -- an organization dedicated largely to housing homeless vets -- offers what's called supportive housing: Residents pay a third of their income (or veteran's benefits) towards rent, and are offered in-house employment and substance abuse counseling, among other services. The Jericho Project gets its funding from a mix of public and private sources, and the group says that less than 10 percent of its buildings' residents relapse back into homelessness. 

As New York City, like cities across the country, tries to end veteran homelessness by the end of this year, organizations like the Jericho Project play an integral part. 

Here, in his own words, is how Craig Hinds says he became homeless, found the Jericho Project and started putting his life back together. 

 

Craig Hinds when he was an E-3 hospital corpsman in the U.S. Navy. 
Courtesy Craig Hinds
Craig Hinds when he was an E-3 hospital corpsman in the U.S. Navy. 

 

I joined the military in 2005. The United States Navy. I did four years. Got out in 2009. Did two tours in Afghanistan and Iraq. I had two jobs. I was a hospital corpsman -- which is the equivalent of a medical assistant -- and I was also a pharmacy technician.

I dealt with the ground troops. A lot of people don’t know this about the military. The Marines and Navy are actually one. The Marines is the ground troops, and the Navy is the water troops, and we’re together. The Marines don’t have medical, so we treat the Marines.

It was very traumatic. The things that I’ve seen, I don’t want to even describe. The thing -- when you see something in the head, you can’t control it. For example, you see something, I’m trained to take care of it, but later on you might dream about it, you might think about it later -- the mind plays tricks on you. Especially if you see it again, it might startle you or scare you or give you some anxiety.

So I had a lot of nightmares. I saw a lot of things I didn’t want to see. It would be playing in my head. You can’t say stop.

When I got out in 2009, that’s when I had a lot of difficulties. That’s when I had a real reality check, coming out of the military into -- well, we call it the civilian world, but from the military to the real world, it’s a crash course, it’s really different.

For example, to get into the military, they take you away from everyone and everybody and they program you. You know what I mean? Boot camp, no phones, no nothing. This is what it takes to be a soldier. They take away what it’s like to be a normal person, a civilian, they want you a certain way, they train you that way. Unfortunately, when it’s time to leave, they don’t train you to be a regular person. You still come out of the military military-minded, used to the military standards and military structure, so when you come out, it’s not as structured out there so it takes a real adjustment period, and it’s really hard finding resources. You ask five people the same question, you get five different answers.

I had huge difficulties in Atlanta. I don’t know if it’s a South thing or what. I went back to live with my mother, because coming out, I had a little bit of money saved up, but I wanted to get all my benefits and everything that I was told I deserved or earned. So when I came out in Atlanta, they only have one or two [Veteran’s Affairs] hospitals in the whole state, so every time I would try to apply for benefits or try to apply for health care or anything, there would be so many people they would send you back and say come back the next day. It was extremely discouraging, and especially without a mass transit system, it’s almost impossible to get around, so I used a lot of my money and resources just trying to get benefits that I never got in Atlanta.

 Atlanta was a shock, because I just came back and --- I feel like veterans should be treated a certain way. What they go through and what they’ve done. A lot of times when we come out of the military we already have a lot of PTSD, a lot of unresolved issues. You come expecting open arms. I didn’t find that in Atlanta.

 

Courtesy Craig Hinds

 

I lived with my mom, and after a while I wasn’t able to help and she’s like, "What are you gonna do?" So I decided to move back to New York. I spoke to my grandmother, and she said I could come stay. I moved to New York in September 2010. I came up here with my grandmother, she lives in Mt. Vernon [in the Bronx.] The Bronx VA is the closest one. Actually I got a lot of help at the Bronx VA, a lot of assistance from the people there. They seemed to be more understanding, more patient. I was able to apply for my benefits, and lucky for me, I bumped into someone I knew from boot camp who worked at the hospital who helped me navigate through certain things. By the time I applied for my compensation, I started going to my routine visits, as far as seeing my primary care doctor, my psychiatrist.

My compensation still hadn’t kicked in yet, because the VA’s really backed up. It took a while. My grandmother grew a little impatient with the process. Unfortunately at that time, I found myself homeless. I bounced to a shelter, but a good shelter was Borden Avenue, an all-veterans shelter. Luckily, my friend directed me there. And that was a big help because it was all veterans.

Being that it was all veterans, there was a certain camaraderie. Even if we’re in different branches -- Army, Air Force, Navy, Marines -- when we come out we have a certain camaraderie because we all come out and hit the same reality. Borden was a little more comfortable because it was all veterans and because I had my own little cubicle space which helped a lot.  

 A lot of people think when they hear homeless veteran, they think of some old Vietnam dude who’s an alcoholic but no, I was only 34. There was a lot of people a little bit younger, a little bit older than me. There’s no age group for it. There’s no age, there’s no race, it affects all of us who come out of the military. It’s not an old people thing, it’s a military thing. It’s an adjustment. It’s a hard adjustment from there to here. It’s hard to find resources when you come out. There’s not one place where you can go and get everything. A lot of people end up in bad situations just trying to get their compensation, which takes over a year. A lot of times the VA is backed up.

 I had to deal with [substance abuse], but not my own. I had to deal with other people’s, but I didn’t have alcohol [problems], thank God, but I see how it could happen, because you get out and you’re like, "Dang,’"and if you hang out with the wrong people, they’ll say, "Take this, relax," and then it becomes a habit. And then every day you’re drinking. It’s kind of a Band Aid for us. A lot of us need therapy, a lot of us need to talk it out. In the process between getting out and being able to talk to somebody, that’s when people fall into the substance abuse. Dealing with the not knowing. Sometimes you might live with a family member. They might kick you out. Different traumas might cause people to substance abuse, and I’ve seen that.

[Walking around, knowing you’re going to a shelter that night] is depressing. It’s depressing. It is. And often times: "How’d I get here? How’d I end up here." But it’s very depressing. But the good thing about [Borden Avenue shelter] is they help you find housing, which is good, so you have a little bit of hope. It’s not like "Oh this is a dead end." So they do help you. You have a little bit of hope, but it’s still depressing.

I had a friend at the VA, and he introduced me to a woman named Brenda, who works with housing and Section 8, and that’s how I found out about [the Jericho Project.]

She gave me the phone number for Jericho and the address. I had to call, and after making a million calls, I finally got somebody and they set me up with an interview.

(Damon Dahlen, Huffington Post)

 

[The first night at Jericho], I couldn’t sleep. I was so excited. It was such a shock: beds, furniture. It was much nicer than I expected. I was in shock. I was like, "This is mine?" It was a brand-new building. Brand-new furniture. Everything was fresh and new. A fresh new start in my life. I felt like I was finally getting a chance to get myself together, and I did.

I mean, living here is amazing. We have a computer room, a laundry room, all here in the basement, a TV room, a multipurpose room. We have counselors we can see all day, as needed, we have employment specialists who help us with jobs, job interviews. If you need a resume, they help us do a resume. I believe you can do anything you want to here because you have staff that can help no matter what you want to do. I never went to anybody here and said, “I need help, I need something,” and they’re not able to do it. Everyone is open arms and willing to assist you. 

PHOTO GALLERY
Kingsbridge Terrace

 

When you come in here, you’re pretty low. You really build your confidence up. You start building up self-worth. You learn how to manage yourself again. You pay your bills. You pay rent, which is based on 30 percent of your income [or VA compensation.] You’re feeding yourself, so you learn how to be independent again. You can build yourself up in so many ways. I didn’t realize how much confidence had a big part to play with it, but I can see as my confidence changed, as I built it up, that everything is working out better.

The facilities with what they have gives me structure. You can’t have outside individuals running inside and outside of the building, so it’s very, very low on distractions. It’s very good for structure.

I meditate twice a day: first thing in the morning and then 3 or 4 in the afternoon. You can do it by yourself, but it also feels better to do it with other people. They have [transcendental meditation] classes at Jericho. They give you a word called a mantra which nobody can know. You repeat it to yourself in your head, and you do that for 20 minutes. You close your eyes, sit in a chair, you say the mantra for 20 minutes and during that period, you release stress and you release things out of the body that feel weird.

It definitely calms me down. It definitely gives me a peaceful state of mind, a peaceful place. I’m able to think clearer, sleep better, and I’m a more happy person, which is what I wanted. I love it.

It makes me really peaceful. It gives me space -- whereas before I would just react. I don’t react as much.

The best feeling is to help someone accomplish their goal. For example, I have a friend Anthony, who had no job, no direction, and I said, do this and do that, and he got a job! He got himself together. He’s cleaned himself up, start dressing better, and I was like, "Wow, I like doing this." So I changed my major to psychology because I really want to help people. I want to talk to them, find out what’s going on, find out how I can help. I think I have a gift for that, and I realized that moving in here, just dealing with a lot of residents.

I’m not using the GI Bill, but I’m using vocational rehabilitation, which is another military tuition assistance program, [to go to Touro College].

I don’t think it’d be best to leave [Jericho] until you're totally where you want to be, anybody out there. I think if you come in you need to set a goal, you need to get a job, and once you reach that goal I think you should leave because it leaves the door open for other people because there’s always going to be homeless veterans. But I don’t think you should leave until you got what you needed for you to be totally independent and successful -- on your own in every way.

Damon Dahlen/Huffington Post

 

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity. 

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