I enlisted in the National Guard some decades ago and was sent to Fort Dix for basic training. An unfortunate tragedy took placed that has left an indelible impression on my life when a fellow recruit attempted suicide in the bathroom next to my stall. This incident reminded me that those who volunteer to join our armed services are just like most of us: haunted by emotions from our past that sometimes morph into actions that can leave our loved ones puzzled.
I am writing this piece merely to shed some light on my experiences with veterans while serving the homeless and needy; I am, in no way, expressing any opinion of our military on this or any other nation.
Among the homeless who visits our food pantry, we have had several veterans come through our door, but I feel compelled to talk about Steve's tribulations as a homeless veteran. Steve entered our pantry last summer for the first time limping --- barely able to walk, he slumped down on our only chair in the lobby and appeared to be in severe foot pain. I immediately glanced at his feet and saw that he was wearing worn-out plastic slippers. The first thing he asked was whether we had a pair of shoes, since he has been walking for miles with just worn out slippers. This was somewhat surprising for me, since most homeless would prefer to satisfy their hunger first.
Fortunately, we had a pair of used shoes someone donated and gave them to Steve to try on. His teary eyes were filled with emotions, followed with nonstop thanks and praises -- to finally have a decent pair of shoes. I came to realize the importance of a good pair of shoes for the homeless, since they spend most of their time on their feet. Also, to be able to do just a simple act of charity is one of the reasons my family and I find such inner gratification running this food-pantry sequestered on a second floor of a building in the Pine Hill's area of Orlando.
Since that first encounter, Steve occasionally visits our food pantry. Following a cold morning around Christmas last year when the weather had become unusually cold for this area, Steve returned to our facility wearing several layers of shirts. Feeling sympathy I asked, "How do you keep warm? Do you have a jacket? Do you have at least a blanket?"
He pulled up his shirts and said, "All I have is this plastic under my clothes." This was Steve's lucky day, for he received a new winter coat (donated by one of our dedicated volunteers), and a new blanket that I purchased just for the homeless since I knew the weather was going to be cold.
There are other veterans like Steve who are struggling on the streets to survive. Tony, a 15-year veteran who somehow fell through the cracks due to family problems, is receiving some help from the VA and studying towards becoming an electrician. However, he struggles just to come up with bus fare to get to his classes. He has applied for work to the local restaurants and area businesses but has yet to receive a response even for an interview, seemingly because of his homelessness. A sad reality of our system today is that, when someone falls through the cracks, there are no safety nets for them, so that his/her life just continues to spiral downward out of control.
I do not take upon my self to judge anyone, as to whether they deserve to be in these circumstances. Whether they are unwilling to seek employment, suffer from some type of alcohol/drug addiction or have some mental disorder is not part of my criteria in providing help. When another human being reaches the bottom and someone reaches out to him or her, it at least gives them a sense of hope. Some may disagree with me, including others who shared my faith, but the life example of the Prophet Mohammad (pbuh) is replete with examples of how his magnanimity and compassion was extended to all: even to those who persecuted and opposed his mission.
Hopefully, Steve's story as a homeless veteran touches others and move them to be more conscious about donating to their local food pantry. Most of us could easily go through our closet and realize there are many things we no longer need. Old shoes or clothing sitting around maybe donated to others who will be more than happy to have our discarded clothing. After all, had someone not donated a pair of shoes, the expression of gratitude on Steve's face last summer would have never come to fruition.