While some may say that members of the military should live lives of comfort after completing their service, not all veterans are fortunate enough to land on their feet. Take U.S. Navy vet John DeGraff, for example; he once spent 11 years homeless in the woods in Boston. But luckily for DeGraff, an appearance on television would ultimately lead to an offer that he couldn’t refuse.
And, of course, DeGraff is by far the only individual to have been homeless. Indeed, according to Yale University, there are an estimated 150 million people worldwide without anywhere in which to live. Some people see these victims of circumstance as nuisances; others, by contrast, don’t notice the homeless at all, meaning they’re in effect another part of urban scenery. But behind each homeless person is a story, and how that individual came to be living on the streets may surprise you.
Regardless, it’s proven hard to quantify the exact number of homeless people living in the United States – owing, as you may expect, to their not having any fixed abodes. Attempts have been made to pin down a number, however, through efforts such as the Annual Homeless Assessment Report (AHAR).
And according to data from the 2017 AHAR, more than half a million people in the U.S. “experienced homelessness” that year. This staggering figure is actually an increase of one percent from 2016. But what can cause a person’s life to go so wrong that they end up losing their home?
Well, there are any number of reasons why such a fate could befall someone. For example, according to a 2012 study by the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law, a significant proportion of those experiencing homelessness are young people from the LGBTQ community – in part because family conflict causes them to either be forced out of their homes or to flee from their relatives. College students also make up a large portion of the homeless figures, and they often end up on the streets following difficulty paying household bills or owing to a lack of financial support from their families.
But regardless of a homeless person’s circumstances, the general public can sometimes have preconceptions of those who end up on the streets. They may be seen as being too lazy to work, for example, or it’s otherwise assumed that they’re either addicted to drugs or mentally ill. And while it’s certainly true that these particular factors can lead to homelessness, it’s not a hard and fast rule. What’s more, such negative perceptions may have their own unsavory consequences.
It appears, you see, that some let their fear or disdain of the homeless turn into aggression. And violence against people on the streets has grown in frequency in the U.S, according to the National Coalition for the Homeless, which found a 30 percent increase in such acts between 1999 and 2005. Occasionally, too, these crimes prove fatal to their victims.
In any case, another group of people who suffer disproportionately from homelessness in the United States are veterans. According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, there were more than 40,000 homeless vets on a given night in January 2017 alone.
And there seem to be reasons why veterans often struggle with homelessness – thanks in part to the dangers of life in the military. Those serving face the risk of suffering potentially life-changing injuries as a result of conflict, for instance, or returning from duty with long-term mental health issues.
Such physical and mental conditions can be so debilitating, in fact, that they leave veterans with limited employment options. Former servicemen and women also face the risk of falling into substance abuse and family relationship breakdowns as a result of the problems that they face in civilian life. All in all, then, these factors – among others – can potentially lead to homelessness.
And one of the issues veterans may face is post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Although PTSD is most commonly linked to people who have experienced war, anyone who suffers from a traumatic event can develop the condition. Typically, the disorder is characterized by distressing dreams, thoughts or hallucinations – any one of which may have a profound effect on the sufferer.
But, fortunately, there are numerous charities out there that are specifically equipped to support people with PTSD – with a British organization called Stand Easy among them. And Stand Easy has shed light on veterans with PTSD through an awareness video that was uploaded to YouTube in 2018. The clip in question sees former members of the military speak on how the condition has affected their lives.
For example, the footage features a British serviceman named Dan, who served for over eight years in the Royal Anglian Regiment. When Dan was injured during his third tour of Afghanistan, however, he developed PTSD. And the veteran explains in the short film, “The way I suffered most [with PTSD] was my sleeping. It’s like hallucinations between awake and sleep, and they’re as real as me or you now.”
Darren Edwards also left the army with PTSD, with the former sergeant explaining on camera, “I was heavily drinking to sleep and prone to violence – or violent outbursts – at work.” And through such revelations, it may be easy to see how PTSD – as well as other combat-related conditions – could be a factor in a veteran losing everything and ending up on the streets.
It’s somewhat staggering, too, to consider how many people have served their country only to wind up homeless – typically in the tens of thousands, as the 2017 U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development report states. And where homeless veterans are mostly concentrated is illuminating.
According to the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness, the biggest population of destitute veterans in the U.S can be found in the state of California, with more than 10,800 there in January 2018. Florida is second with more than 2,500, followed by Texas with nearly 2,000. But the issue hasn’t been completely swept under the carpet. In February 2019, for example, Boston, Massachusetts, news reporter Bob Ward tackled the issue of veteran homelessness in a video news segment.
In an article accompanying the footage, Boston 25 News reporter Ward wrote, “I live and work in an area of high-end shopping, fine dining and expensive homes. But just five miles away from where I show up for work every single day, there is a completely different world.”
Not far from Ward’s place of employment, you see, woods on the outskirts of the Boston city limits host a makeshift camp. And dwelling among the trees – with no home to call his own – was U.S. Navy veteran DeGraff, who had been in the same position for more than a decade.
Ward interviews DeGraff in the video, with the clip showing the reporter being led to what appears to be a pile of junk in the woods. But the heap of tarpaulin and branches is actually a rudimentary tent, with DeGraff’s possessions – some supplies of food and clothes – stacked in the corners.
“This is my bed,” DeGraff explains to Ward in the video, indicating his sleeping conditions. The homemade bed, for its part, is made up of sleeping bags and rugs that have been placed over wooden concrete forms. However, when the homeless man reveals how he keeps warm, it puts a lot of things in perspective.
On camera, DeGraff says by way of explanation, “Every day, I try to grab three or four bundles out of the woods.” Yes, the twigs and wood scraps that the vet manages to scavenge are the materials that he uses in order to not freeze while outdoors.
After that, DeGraff lights a fire inside his own tent. Not only is the blaze within an enclosed space, then, but it’s also mere footsteps away from DeGraff’s bed. And as a consequence, the fire may pose a real hazard to his health should it spread further.
Then there’s the overwhelming smoke rising from the flames – something that Ward notes in the video. The journalist tells DeGraff, “I’m smelling that fire. It’s filling my lungs; that smoke is filling my lungs.” Still, the homeless man appears to be oblivious to the danger, presumably having become accustomed to the blaze by necessity.
“I’ve learned to sleep with a big, roaring fire, no problem,” DeGraff responds. And when Ward presses him, asking, “You’re not worried that it could catch fire and maybe kill you?” the homeless man simply replies, “No, not at all.” It may be the case, then, that the comfort and warmth the flames provide are preferable to the cold from the vet’s point of view.
But this isn’t the only revelation that Ward gets out of DeGraff. You see, the former Navy man also reveals to Ward that he has been living homeless for more than a decade. He elaborates in the video, “This is my 11th year; I’ve got my 12th year coming up.”
And DeGraff also talks about his past life to Ward, describing how he served in the U.S. Navy in the late 1980s. To that, the journalist responds, “You’re a veteran. You’re a veteran living in a tent in the woods. That’s not right.” DeGraff appears somewhat sanguine, though, when he replies, “Well, you know what, I don’t get a dime for anything. I don’t get food stamps or anything.”
Ward then asks DeGraff, “How do you feel about being out here in the woods for 11 years?” And again the vet is understated in his response, saying, “I don’t know. It’d be nice to be inside.” What the homeless man didn’t know at the time, however, was that an incredible surprise was just around the corner.
You see, Ward’s Boston 25 News video segment caught the attention of Felicia Turner at Volunteers of America Massachusetts. And it appears that the kind-hearted woman knew she had to step in. In a follow-up video segment, Turner tells the news station, “I’m like, ‘Wow, 11 years.’ [DeGraff] shouldn’t be on the streets, so I want to help this guy. He just seemed like a humble guy who needed help.” To this end, then, Turner contacted Dom Marcellino and Mike McNulty.
But Marcellino and McNulty are not strangers to DeGraff’s situation, as they are seen meeting the homeless man in the original Boston 25 News segment. In addition, the two men are both members of an organization called Disabled and Limbless Veterans (DLV) – a non-profit dedicated to assisting homeless former vets by providing them with the necessities that they require to survive.
And McNulty – DLV’s founder – and Marcellino – the organization’s president – are both Vietnam vets themselves, with Marcellino having had three limbs amputated as a result of the war. In all, then, the duo think it’s terrible that people like DeGraff aren’t getting the help they need, as they explain to Ward in his Boston 25 News video segment. There, McNulty remarks, “[No veteran] should be living under these conditions.”
“These are guys who fought for their country,” McNulty continues. “Why are they in a situation like this?” And Marcellino adds, “You wouldn’t believe [that DeGraff] is living like he is living. In the middle of downtown Boston… it shocked me.”
“They’re out there,” McNulty adds in his interview with Boston 25 News, referring to homeless vets such as DeGraff. “A lot of these guys don’t want to go to the shelters.” The DLV founder further explains in the segment that he believes there are up to 400 veterans living in the woods in and around Boston.
“DeGraff won’t roll over and surrender; that’s basically what it is,” Marcellino says on camera. “We still see people fall through the cracks – just for the fact that they are stubborn [and] they are self-sufficient. They are proud, and they won’t put their hand out for anything.” Nevertheless, everyone needs help sometimes.
And Marcellino and McNulty have been practicing what they preach by bringing DeGraff food and supplies; they even took him to the VA. But as it turns out, those kind actions merely marked the start of the men’s quest to help their fellow vet turn his life around.
Yes, in February 2019 DLV’s Facebook page added an uplifting post to their feed – one concerning DeGraff’s situation. This read, “After more than 11 years of living in the woods, Navy veteran [John DeGraff] agrees to relocate to temporary housing at the Volunteers of America Veterans Center.” And this changed everything for the former homeless man, as reporter Ward soon found out.
Indeed, Ward caught up with DeGraff at the shelter to see how he was acclimatizing to his new abode. In the new follow-up video segment, he asks the Navy vet, “What was it like when you first saw this room?” And DeGraff responds touchingly, saying, “I was almost ready to cry.”
What’s more, Marcellino could see how much the relocation had affected DeGraff. He tells Boston 25 News, “[DeGraff is] a changed man in 24 hours. He is different than he was yesterday: a shower, a clean bed, a nice warm room.” And now DeGraff’s physical needs are catered for, the emotional healing can begin.
Thankfully, the center has a therapy program on site that has been designed to help veterans adjust to the civilian life. And the project’s director, Anthony Joseph, suggests to Ward that this is just as well, as DeGraff’s life will be very different going forward.
“[Degraff is] going to have to learn how to live in an atmosphere that’s totally safe,” Joseph explains in the Boston 25 News video. “Because where he’s been – he’s living in an atmosphere that is unsafe. Anything could happen at any time.”
“Here is [DeGraff], who put the uniform on to defend his country. He doesn’t belong living in the woods,” McNulty also remarks in the video. And for his part, DeGraff is grateful that there was a helping hand out there. On camera, the vet says of his new situation, “It’s great, because I know there are a lot of good people out there. A lot of decent people.”