Butler VA Health Care System
NEWS CLIP- Once-homeless man has New Castle home, thanks to VA
September 27, 2010LEADER TIMES-- September 27, 2010
NEW CASTLE -- Sleeping in a bed, getting food from a refrigerator and cooking on a stove, taking a warm shower, and watching TV are everyday things that most of us take for granted.
However, in April, for the first time in six years, Army veteran John Harding, 52, was able to do all these things. Thanks for his new life are due to the Homeless Veterans Outreach Program of the Butler VA Medical Center, Catholic Charities of New Castle, and several charitable organizations in Lawrence County.
Prior to April, Harding said he drifted in and out of various homeless camps. He became involved with drugs and alcohol. He also became alienated from his family in Fayette County. After a short stay in a halfway house in Aliquippa, Harding came to New Castle in 2004, where he lives in a tent in a makeshift camp on the outskirts of town with five other homeless veterans.
During the bitter winter of 2009-10 he said he heated the tent with a small Coleman heater. He and other residents of the camp also tried to keep warm with a campfire.
"I couldn't always get fuel for the stove," he said, "and last winter was pretty bad. Lots of snow and very cold. Somehow I stuck out the winter, but I also knew that I wouldn't survive another winter living out there."
Homeless camp residents sometimes sought refuge in a local rescue mission; however, the mission limited stays to one night only. Harding said he and other camp dwellers would sometimes get a hot meal from two charitable organizations, Patches Place and Feed My Sheep.
"Someone at Patches Place said I should go to Catholic Charities to see if they could help me get out of the camp. I contacted Heidi Christy and Misty Miller. They were very helpful and put me in contact with Mr. Dan Slack (homeless veterans coordinator) of the VA in Butler."
Christy, Miller and Slack eventually arranged to obtain an apartment for Harding. Patches Place donated furniture and a TV. Catholic Charities paid several months' rent for Harding, helped with utilities and assisted him in getting on the food stamp program. Community Action of Lawrence County and the Salvation Army also provided aid.
Harding said that at one time he was employed building mobile homes but hadn't worked or been able to hold a job in several decades. He would like to pay an occasional visit to his friends who are still living in the camp but has no desire to return living there.
"Last summer (2009) we had vandals come and burn us out and sometimes people would harass us," he said. "You always had to be alert. We were along a river and sometimes caught fish. But no one had a fishing license, so we had to be careful not to get caught by the Fish Commission people. They checked on us once in a while. Sometimes the city police would come and check on us too, but just to make sure we were OK. They were pretty nice and didn't really bother us. But the worst thing was the winter weather. There were many times last winter that I thought I just wouldn't make it through."
Miller said Catholic Charities and the VA Medical Center in Butler worked with Harding for nearly four months before they were able to arrange for him to have an apartment.
"John is very persistent," Miller said. "He tries to keep all his appointments but has difficulty walking, so he missed a few. We found that some people in certain social service agencies were rude and lacked understanding about men like John. John also has difficulty reading and writing.
"Last winter, a man froze to death while trying to sleep in a bus shelter. John is very lucky. We are working with Dan Slack and other agencies to help these men. Helping them is a sad but rewarding experience. Their plight is such that anyone with real compassion is forced to not ignore it."
Slack said his job often requires him to "beat the bush" to find homeless veterans and offer them help. He said some accept the offer, some do not. Many have mental heath issues and suffer from post traumatic stress disorder. Like Harding, most are alienated from their families.
"The Butler VA covers Armstrong, Beaver, Butler, Clarion, Lawrence and Mercer counties," Slack said. "As far as we can determine, there are about 250 homeless vets in our area. Many are Vietnam veterans in their 50s. However, in the past several years, the number of homeless veterans has declined, thanks to a nationwide, five-year VA plan to eliminate homelessness among veterans. John is one of our success stories. It's a real challenge, but we're up to it."
John has been living in his apartment for nearly five months. He said he is greatful for the help and care he received.
"Winter's coming on now," he said. "Another winter in the camp and I'd be a dead man. No one can imagine how much I enjoy my new life. It's a second chance at life. I don't know how I can ever thank everyone who helped me."
Read more: Once-homeless man has New Castle home, thanks to service agencies - Pittsburgh Tribune-Review