Author: Nelson Morais

Date: Nov. 20, 2015

When I read an article today that was printed in the newspaper I work for, about efforts in East Tennessee to find permanent housing for all local homeless veterans, I thought back to “Richard.” He was the veteran I became friends with when we were staying at the same halfway house in West Palm Beach, Fla., in 1993. I wrote about our experience moving to Johnson City, Tenn., where we lived with his father, also a veteran, while looking for construction jobs in the area.

It was late November or early December, with snow on the ground, and few active work sites that we could apply at for jobs. We even volunteered as painters at a museum in downtown Johnson City with the hope our bosses would like our work and hire us. After a couple of days of working as volunteers, we sensed full-time work would not be offered to us, so we quit.

I relate some of our shared experiences in my memoir about my being homeless for about six years in the 1990s, titled, “From Homeless to Heaven.” Though Richard and I had roofs over our heads, first at the halfway house, and then at his father’s house, we were essentially homeless. We had no permanent homes to return to, no options to fall back on. While Richard’s father welcomed us into his home, he was adamant that we could not drink alcohol while there.

That proved to be an impossible rule for Richard to keep. He started drinking vodka on the our bus trip north to Tennessee. While in “Willie’s” home, Richard’s drinking soon became obvious, despite his attempts to do it secretly.

Richard was a Vietnam veteran who opposed the war after he was discharged from the U.S. Army. He had in previous years worked in a professional photography shop in the Johnson City area before being fired for — you guessed it — drinking alcohol. Richard also told me that several years earlier, he had lived as a homeless man on the Johnson City Veterans Affairs hospital’s grounds.

In 1993, Richard was in his 40s, good-natured, humorous, and pleasant to be around. He dreamed of opening his own photography shop one day, with living quarters in the back so we could save on housing costs. (Richard had promised a mutual friend in Florida before we left that he would look after me in Tennessee. The two of them assumed I could not survive on my own in the world, which was probably true then, due to my emerging mental illness, schizophrenia. I thought I was fine. They knew better, however.)

I wonder now, would Richard have accepted permanent housing if it were made available to him back in the 1990s via a program similar to the one now offered to homeless veterans in East Tennessee? The answer is definitely yes.

In 1993, one day Willie drove his son and me to Boone, N.C., which Richard had lived in previously. Willie dropped us off at the homeless shelter in Boone. That day, however, was the last time I saw Richard. I checked in, but he went out before the shelter’s curfew to get drunk. When he returned to the shelter, he was barred from staying there because he was drunk.

I spent the next few days hoping I’d cross paths with Richard again, but that never happened. While in Johnson City a month earlier, Richard had been admitted to the VA hospital as a patient suffering with alcohol poisoning. I remember his doctor saying if he drank again, he’d probably live no more than six more months.

What happened to Richard? I don’t know. However, barring some unforeseen miracle, I presume he did die within the year following the last day I saw him in Boone. That thought saddens me immensely.