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Marine Corps vet says paths to homelessness are not the same for all

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Homeless veterans
A military veteran receives hygiene products at the Washington, D.C., Veterans Affairs Medical Center Jan. 30 during the 22nd Annual Winterhaven Homeless Veterans Stand Down. Nonprofit and other organizations throughout the metro area donated items for the event, including blankets, socks, T-shirts and hygiene products. (Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall PAO photo by Nell King)

William Council says there’s a stereotype associated with homeless veterans.

It’s a common story that involves a soldier heading to war, seeing and experiencing horrific things during combat, then coming back home unable to adjust. Some combination of post-traumatic stress, mental illness or addiction usually takes hold, rendering the soldier unfit for the civilian world.

Council says this widely held depiction is absolutely true for many veterans, but the common narrative connecting combat and homelessness over-simplifies things and can diminish those with a different experience. Council knows this because he’s a veteran. He was also homeless during a large chunk of his life after the service.

And it had nothing to do with combat.

Council, 48, grew up in the Bedford — Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn. He joined the in his early 20s, serving during the Gulf War era.

“I really loved my country and wanted to serve it,” Council said. “I wanted to join the Air Force and fly at first, but didn’t think I’d be able to because I wore glasses. I ended up joining the Marines and I’m glad I did. It’s one of the things I’m most proud of in my life.”

Council worked as a field radio operator and deployed to Norway while he was a Marine, but never experienced combat by the time he left the service in 1997. He said he served his country proudly, but he felt like it was time for a new direction when he called it quits.

While living in upstate New York, Council made ends meet working as a freelance graphic designer and writer. He was married in 2001 to a woman he met in New York. Council said life was going relatively well until his wife came down with a mysterious and still-undiagnosed medical condition.

“She couldn’t walk for a period of time, she couldn’t talk for like two weeks,” Council said. “It was a nightmare, especially the not-knowing.”

Council said, at the suggestion of a doctor, he and his wife decided to move to a more temperate climate in 2005. They thought exchanging frigid, snowy winters in upstate New York for the mild conditions of Santa Fe, New Mexico would help the mystery ailment.

But that meant Council would have to start from square one if he wanted to continue with his freelance graphic design and writing work. He couldn’t take his clientele with him, and the rebuild in New Mexico proved impossible.

He found employment though, working at places like Blockbuster and RadioShack, but his wife was unable to do much. Meanwhile, the medical expenses piled up without any resolution to the sickness.

“We went from two incomes to one and our families, our support groups, were back in New York, 2,000 miles away,” Council said. “In hindsight, it probably wasn’t the best decision.”

For a time in New Mexico, the couple lived out of their car. They moved back to New York in 2010, but separated soon after. Council said they’re still legally married, but he hasn’t seen his wife since 2011.

The separation left him devastated. Council lived in Brooklyn, but was never able to regain the life he had before the move. He remained homeless and bounced around shelters throughout the city.

In 2013, he moved to Utah to live with a person he’d been collaborating with on an online comic. He stayed with the man for a while and found part-time work at a call center in West Valley, but eventually found himself again without a home.

It was shortly after he came to Utah that he heard about the Ogden Homeless Veterans Fellowship — the place Council said finally changed his life.

Nearly two years ago, Council entered an 18-month transitional housing program at the fellowship that provides free housing for veterans while they work with in-house counselors and case workers to identify the underlying causes of their homelessness.

 

OHVF Director Jeff Kane said counselors help veterans set goals and learn life skills and coping strategies while working with them to develop a plan to transition into permanent housing.

“The whole goal is to get them on their feet,” Kane said. “But we want them to, essentially, be the ones to do it. We help, we facilitate, but for success to happen, they really have to do it themselves.”

In exchange for the housing and counseling services, veterans at OHVF must stay clean and sober and do chores around the fellowship’s 50-bed facility on 23rd Street, between Jefferson and Adams avenues.

“You do dishes, laundry, you make your own meals,” Council said. “You learn how to live a normal life again.”

Returning to that normal life has required Council to acknowledge what he calls the real genesis of his homelessness: being sexually abused as a child.

He said counselors at the fellowship made him realize he had to deal with the abuse, not run from it.

“It really affected my relationships and how I interacted with people,” Council said. “It took me a long time to deal with it, but I think I’m finally doing it.”

Council said he’s also realized much of his wife’s mystery illness can likely be attributed to post-traumatic stress.

“I don’t want to speak for her, but she had a really challenging childhood, too,” he said. “It just makes sense. Life is hard sometimes. It doesn’t matter if you’re a veteran, a doctor, a lawyer. It doesn’t matter how well you plan — things can happen.”

Council is currently working through an extended-stay program at the fellowship, but said he plans to leave Ogden soon, hoping to settle in either Kansas or back home in New York. He said after years of bouncing among shelters, making cross-country moves in search of a better life and spending too much time living out of his car, he finally feels like stability is on the horizon.

“Being homeless, it’s like a really awful, long camping trip,” Council said. “And I never thought camping was any fun anyway. I’m ready to take my experiences and learn from them. Move on to a better life.”

You can reach reporter Mitch Shaw at mishaw@standard.net or at 801-625-4233. Follow him on Twitter at @mitchshaw23 or like him on Facebook.

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