He served in the Army and the U.S. Coast Guard then ended up living for years in an 8-by-12-foot shack he constructed of wood from an old picket fence and insulated with discarded hot tub covers.
Every few days, the 56-year-old lugged a 5-gallon jug of water he bought from a grocer to the rugged shelter. He heated the water on a propane stove and took sponge baths to care for himself.
Many nights, he lay awake, “just wondering if the wolf’s going to be at the door,’’ he said.
Hiding out in the scrub oak in the foothills on Colorado Springs’ west side took its toll and a few weeks back, he was selected to participate in a Transitional Housing Initiative. He is now living in a hotel.
“A place to shower, a bed,’’ he said, his voice cracking with emotion. “It’s nice – just to sleep in a bed and have that peace of mind.
“If I’m looking for work or doing anything, I’m able to show up presentable. I’ve got clean clothes on, and I am showered,’’ said the vet, who will remain anonymous.
The veteran’s new start began Oct. 17, when he attended the 25th Annual Stand Down, a community-wide event in Colorado Springs to help veterans experiencing homelessness. Community volunteers provide winter gear – socks, coats, hats, gloves, boots – as well as financial, spiritual and logistical support. When funding for the transitional housing program, operated by Mt. Carmel Veterans Service Center, was in jeopardy this year, UCHealth and the Memorial Hospital Foundation stepped up to fill the financial need.
That afternoon at the close of the Stand Down, the veteran hopped aboard a van that took him and eight other veterans experiencing homelessness to a local hotel, where they are spending 30 days in an immersive program aimed at helping them find work and attain permanent housing. At the end of the 30 days, the goal is for each man to have a job and a permanent place to live.
“It will be wonderful,’’ the veteran said of finding permanent housing. “I always had my own place, and I had a job. I never asked for any kind of assistance like this. It’s just the housing out there …There isn’t anything under $1,000 a month out there.’’
Mt. Carmel, a nonprofit organization that helps men and women veterans in countless ways, will work with the men for up to a year after they find work and housing. UCHealth partners with Mt. Carmel in the Next Chapter program, along with the state of Colorado, and is dedicated to reducing veteran suicides and improving access to behavioral health for veterans. In 2022, the percentage of people who took their lives who were military veterans decreased by 5%, according to the El Paso County Coroner’s annual report.
“With our partners at Mt. Carmel, we are wrapping services around these individuals to help them find permanent housing and employment and to help them reconstruct and rebuild the government documents they may have lost while experiencing homelessness. We are making sure all of their health and wellness needs are assessed,’’ said Damian McCabe, director of behavioral health and military and veteran’s affairs for UCHealth.
Two rooms in a Colorado Springs hotel serve as meeting spaces for the veterans enrolled in the program. There, the veterans each work side-by-side with Glen Cooper, a client care coordinator from Mt. Carmel, and other professionals to learn about the vast resources available in the community.
“Thirty days doesn’t seem like a lot of time, but that’s 30 days where every day that you wake up, you’re working with a case manager,’’ McCabe said. “Their only focus in those first 30 days is to find permanent housing and placement. We begin to catalog and assess the needs that the veteran has in life so that we can pull together agencies and support services to break you out of the cycle of homelessness.’’
Housing is a social determinant of health, McCabe said, and vital to a person’s health and well-being.
“It’s critical that people have a safe place to shelter and a place where they can get their next meal. Without those two things in place, you’re not able to meet your basic needs as a human. UCHealth is happy to get behind this so that veterans can feel confident and start to take care of other parts of their needs on a daily basis.
“We’re providing support through Next Chapter, but if you can’t get your basic needs met, then it is hard to start thinking about counseling, therapy and those other higher-level needs,’’ McCabe said.
In recent years, the transitional housing program was a catalyst for change – the right help at the right time for veterans. A family of four that had been living in their car has been in an apartment for more than a year. A veteran experiencing homelessness and her teenage son, who lived for months in a shelter, now live in an apartment. The mom works full-time, and Mt. Carmel has arranged transportation for the son so he can get to school.
Shannon Olin, director of military veteran family services for Mt. Carmel, said veterans have to pass a background check before they’re enrolled in the program. They are also asked a series of questions.
“We are looking for people who are wanting to go to work. Maybe they need help getting job placement, maybe they need interview skills,’’ Olin said. “With the transitional housing program, we want to make sure they understand what the program is about and make sure that it is something that they want because we can’t want it for them.
“We want to make sure there is an understanding that this is a really intensive program, but in 30 days, we want to make sure that they are job ready, if not already in a job,’’ Olin said.
After 30 days in the hotel, support continues for the men in the transitional housing program. Mt. Carmel provides help year-round for active-duty veterans and retirees, helping them with a multitude of needs.
“We are going to support the veteran from start to finish, and we want to see stability over the long term,’’ Olin said. “We can help with a food pantry – we have a food pantry on site. We also do financial coaching to help with budgeting. We’re there to step in and say, ‘How do we make sure that you stay stable?’ It’s so much easier for us to help clients stay housed rather than having them become homeless and then getting them back into housing.’’
Olin said not everyone in the transitional housing program succeeds.
“This industry is really tough. It can be really draining, and I think what is most rewarding is when you’ve had that impact. You see such great things happen for people who really deserve something good to happen in their life,’’ said Olin.
For the veteran who lived in the shack on the city’s west side, he is already feeling a little better about himself.
“Having Glen and Shannon and everybody, and they’re just giving you that sense of ‘hang in there.’ Things will get better, that sort of thing,’’ he said.
He said he used to consider himself an optimist, a person who had hope, but after five years in a shack, “I’ve lost both of those.’’
He had been injured while in the Coast Guard. A pipe hit him in the face, knocked out a dozen teeth and split open his upper and lower lip, requiring 100 stitches. Still, when he left the military in 1991, he went to Lake Tahoe to work on diesel engines in boats, and over the years, he worked as a parts manager in an automotive retail store and as a finish carpenter, a skill that served him well when building his shack.
He came to Colorado with the intent to go to Breckenridge to ski, but a “crazy woman’’ burned his truck, which held his tools, mountain bikes and skis. He held odd jobs here and there, but for reasons he cannot explain, he never got back on his feet.
Kate Faricy Maiurro, executive director of the Memorial Hospital Foundation, said the foundation’s board and staff are honored to help the veterans.
“It’s important for the community as it promotes health and well-being, prevents medical and psychological crises, fosters cooperative community relations, supports veteran patients, and encourages collaborative efforts to address complex issues affecting veterans in our community.
“Simply put, it’s the right thing to do,’’ Maiurro said.
With one of the largest veteran communities in the nation, Colorado Springs is keenly sensitive to the needs of the military, those who are serving and those who have served.
Still, it’s difficult for veterans to seek help, said Brian Murphy, a VA-licensed clinical social worker at Fort Carson, where he helps active duty service members transition out of the Army.
“It takes the courage of a warrior to ask for help,’’ he said. “There are services available; they just need to reach out and ask for help, and that is the hardest thing to do sometimes.
“For some, it gets to the point where they are pretty well rock bottom before they will do that because the military instills in you this self-reliance, that I can do anything. ‘I am capable of doing anything,’ which is great, but then when you are down and you do need help, the idea that ‘I can take care of it on my own,’ comes into play,’’ Murphy said.
At the Stand Down, though, the show of support from the community sends a clear message.
“It’s awesome to have people come together who want to help less fortunate people. They come here (the Stand Down) to give things that will help them survive but more importantly to give them an opportunity to come out of homelessness and get some self-sufficiency,’’ said Bob McLaughlin, executive director of Mt. Carmel.
“This is an example of helping somebody in need. Even if they’re coming here for a pair of boots, it is going to help them get through the winter, that’s great. If they’re coming here to talk to the VA about benefits, that’s great, too. The most important thing is this is a safe place where there is no judgment,’’ McLaughlin said.
For the veteran who has been sleeping in a hotel and working toward a permanent home, the leg up has helped him worry less about the wolf at the door and concentrate more about getting back on his feet.
“I’m not worried about anyone coming to knock on my door and saying, ‘you’re out.’’’