NOTE: The names and places were changed to protect the identity of the Veteran.
It was a rainy afternoon in the Pacific Northwest. The thick clouds were dark and heavy, giving the atmosphere outside a gloomy and oppressive feeling. I drove across town to attend a meeting at a local American Legion.
The atmosphere at the American Legion was warm and welcoming. The bar manager hung Christmas lights across the ceiling and taped candy cane and stocking cutouts to the walls – each had a name of a Veteran etched in glitter. In the corner near the ATM was a nicely decorated Christmas tree with multicolored lights that faded in and out, hand-crafted ornaments, garland, and a tree star on top. In the background, played Christmas tunes.
Upon entering the building, I heard “Merry Christmas” from the post-commander.
“Merry Christmas to you too!”
I sat at the bar next to a woman I didn’t know and ordered a Blue Moon with a slice of orange. I sat next to a veteran whom I will call Joan. She smiled at me, wished me a joyous holiday, and sipped her drink quietly. I’d occasionally see her at the Legion, but we’d never formally conversed until that day.
Joan was a disabled Veteran and single mom who worked a few jobs to make ends meet. She had a couple of teenage boys at home whom she provided for with no support from the father. We talked about the weather, the summers, and the overcrowded tourist hotspots. Shared a couple of bad Army jokes. Laughed at the unpredictability of civilian life. We hem-hawed around about life in the Pacific Northwest; increased cost of living, the riots, the rise in vehicular theft, and the drug addicts downtown.
“Back in the day, this was a nice city to live in. Time’s changed,” she said.
“I remember during my last visit; it wasn’t like this. It used to be a beautiful city. Picturesque blue skies, the sun glistening off the Willamette, and boats graciously sailing along the Columbia. It is costlier than I remember too! My 150-dollar utility bill surprised me. I was here almost 10 years ago, and it was nothing like it is now.” I said and gulped down my Blue Moon.
“Yeah. It’s hard. Especially being a single mom.”
“I can’t imagine how hard it is now. I remember a few years ago, you could afford gas, rent, and groceries to feed a family of 3. Now I pay for 1 person and the grocery bill costs the same, if not more.”
I looked over to see a short heavy-set woman, with brown eyes with blue eyeshadow hidden behind large thick glasses, plum-colored lips, rosy cheeks, and curly blue hair. It’s been really hard, rasin’ kids and all. I work a few jobs and now and then I get a night out to go have some fun. I don’t go anywhere exciting. I come here, grab a couple of drinks, shoot some pool, and then go home. Maybe take a chance at winnin’ some money at the slot machine. But it is nice to get out now and then.”
“If you could win the Lotto, what would you do with the money? Buy a house, get a car…?”
She laughed aloud. “I’d give my kids everything they ever wanted.” She said, pulled out her phone, and held up a picture of two teenage boys. “They would never have to worry.” Her laughter filled the room. “Some fine young men there,” she said, smiling. “I’m a proud momma.”
“Do you have support from your family?”
“Ha!” she said aloud and sarcastically. “I couldn’t imagine asking my family to help.”
I looked at her inquisitively. “Why not?”
“I came from a Southern Baptist family. My parents were religious. When I left my husband, they thought it was my fault. My friends at the time thought I was the sinner because a wife is supposed to love and support her husband and win him over to the lord.” She said sarcastically, rolling her eyes. “My ex-husband. Now, he was a real winner. I didn’t get him from the bottom of the barrel, I got him from underneath it. Lousy son-of-a-bitch never paid an ounce of child support. He’s been gone for 10 years. So, I did what any sane person would do to get away from the problems at home. I joined the Army and took my kids with me. Best damn decision I ever made.” She said, took a swig of her beer, and slammed the mug on the bar top. “I’d never go back, so help me God! I’m better off, and so are my kids! I got some great damn kids, too.”
“I see,” I chuckled to myself.
“You know. I’ve been away from home for so long. I can’t even imagine what it would be like going back.” She took another drink and signaled the bartender for another.
“I’ve been homeless 3 or 4 times over the years. The longest period was a year and 2 months during the Pandemic. Slept in my car. Thankfully, my kids had places to go. I worked at Amazon to make ends meet because no one else was hirin’ and all the Veteran programs were not available. I’d wash myself at the Love’s station just outside of town, and go to work at night, sleep in my car during the day. It was a little safer than sleeping in my car at night. All the homeless people and carjackings that go on at night.” She was silent for a moment before speaking up again. “You know why I will never move home?”
“Why?” I asked.
“I remember when I joined the Army, it was just after my husband and I split up. My mom told me I was a shitty mom for joinin’ the Army. I was abandoning my kids so I can ‘go off and play army.’ They even had the gall to threaten to take them from me. I know if I went home, she’d say, ‘I told you wouldn’t make it out there. Joining the Army was the worst decision you could have made. See where it got you?’”
I sat quietly and listened. The bartender walked up with a full mug in hand, smiled at us, and placed it gently on the bar top. Joan smiled, thanked her, and turned to look at me.
“But I think it’s one of the worst experiences that keeps me from moving home.” She said, holding back tears. “It was my friends.” She gently put her empty beer mug on the bar top, moved it away from her, and pulled the new full mug close to her body. “My friends were all religious, too. So much so, I got the shunnin’ from them, too. No one knew what my husband was like behind closed doors. No one knew he was a hittin’ me, yellin’ at me, tellin’ me some gosh awful things. They just saw how a relationship should be. A man should love his wife, and a wife, her husband. And boy, my ex-husband put on a show. Even in front of the judge during those last hours of our marriage.” She took a large gulp of her beer, placed it calmly on the table, and wiped a tear from her eyes using the bar napkins.
I sat quietly. Listening. Allowing Joan to express her pain. I didn’t know our first encounter would turn into this. Joan was completely vulnerable, open, and willing to share her experiences with someone she didn’t know.
“I remember when I left my husband. I went to my friends for the holidays because my momma wasn’t havin’ me. We were having a good time—or so I thought. My friends wanted to party at my best friend’s brother-in-law’s house. I asked if I could go. I thought we were all good with each other. But I guess not. My best friend came back to me and said, “I talked with my husband and his brother about you tagging along and they said no. They said it wasn’t personal, but they didn’t want a divorcee in the house because it would make them look bad and it wouldn’t be proper.” Joan was sobbing. I could do nothing but sit and listen. “Another time, my friends were all going to a lake to go fishing. They were all going on motorcycles. I asked if I could go. And the guys said that having a divorced woman riding on the back of one of their bikes is gross. They couldn’t imagine having some divorced girl’s arms wrapped around their waist or her tits touching their backs.” She sobbed into her soiled napkin.
I handed her a new napkin, took a sip of my drink, and listened to her. Her story surprised me. I thought we’d moved past the Middle Ages. Divorce is so common these days that it’s hard to believe people still think this way. Whatever happened to caring for the widow and orphans?
“I was too dirty,” she sobbed. “During one of the darkest times of my life, the most bitter divorce, I was so alone. I didn’t want to date them, sleep with them, or marry them. I just wanted a place to belong. I went home during the pandemic. I could see it written all over their faces.”
“They all looked down at me. Some were mad I showed up after all these years bein’ away. One of my old friends got angry and snapped at me. Another one talked about the homeless problem as if they were all crackheads while looking at me, sizing me up like I was one of them,” she yelled. “One of them said a grown woman needs to have a job and be independent. They asked why I hadn’t found a job yet. This was during the pandemic! No one was hiring!” she shouted. She slumped back in her chair. “No one knows what I was going through. They were quick to judge. But no one saw just how hard it was to rebuild your life after the pandemic took it away. In my darkest darkness, they all judged me. It was humiliating.”
“Is that what keeps you here?”
“A woman has her pride. I’d sleep in a cardboard box before I move home and experience that again—and I’ve slept in plenty.” There was a long silence between us. She wiped the remaining tears from her eyes. Crumpled the napkin and tossed it in a nearby trash. “Sometimes, it’s better to be anywhere but home. If only they knew how badly I was hurting. But they didn’t, and I doubt they ever will.”
Joan’s story was profoundly impactful. After I left the American Legion that night, I thought about this all the way home. I don’t think I ever asked why homeless Veterans choose to stay homeless, or why Veterans choose not to move home. And yet, when I drive past the sea of homeless people in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Portland, and Seattle, I wonder how many have stories just like Joan’s lay beneath the mounds of cardboard boxes, debris, and plastic tarps.
The Judeo-Christian bible says, to love your neighbor as yourself and to care for the widow and the fatherless children. We are so quick to judge and so reluctant to show compassion. Perhaps, if we could extend a hand of mercy before we chastise with judgment, there would be less homelessness—at least, by a few. Homelessness is a complex problem and, in some cases, a lending hand is not the right answer. But not everyone on the street is there because of mental disorders or drugs. Some, just like Joan, simply fell on hard times.
~ T. Ivri