Francis Kaufman still remembers that fateful day last December when he was released from the Pennington County Jail after serving five months on drug-related charges.
It was 12 degrees outside and Kaufman, a 37-year-old Navy veteran, was clad in the same apparel he had been arrested in last summer – a T-shirt, shorts and sandals.
“It was freezing, I was homeless and I was lost,” said Kaufman, who once sailed the world as an electronics technician aboard the USS John C. Stennis, an aircraft carrier so large it has its own traveling ZIP code.
But fate, a newfound friend whose name he still doesn’t know and a local homeless shelter intervened and now, the 6-foot-1, married father of three is gainfully employed and settled into a rental home on Rapid City’s south side with his family. His story of service and subsequent solitude is not new in South Dakota, which is seeing a rising number of homeless veterans across the state.
As Kaufman walked down St. Joseph Street that wintry day six months past, he wondered what to do and where to go. Sensing his uneasiness, another homeless man offered to buy Kaufman lunch at Hardee’s. Though Kaufman never learned his name, the man suggested Kaufman head over to the Cornerstone Rescue Mission, which had provided him with a coat and gloves.
“This was some guy I didn’t even know,” the Pierre native and Stevens High School graduate said with a shake of his head. Following the welcome lunch, Kaufman heeded the man’s advice and walked to the Cornerstone Mission, where he not only found a warm bed, food, clothes and comfort, but compassion and the resources he needed to move forward as well.
“I was feeling lost and alone,” Kaufman said. “That was the most difficult thing. But the people at the mission made me feel that I belonged, and that I wasn’t alone anymore.”
Kaufman also credits Andrea, his wife of 14 years, for supporting him through the most trying time of his life.
“After everything I had done, I said, ‘I have to do this on my own,'” he said. “But I have to thank Andrea for her love and support and for standing by me through all of this craziness. We can look forward to the future, and it’s bright.”
Kaufman’s story is not unusual, according to Teena Conrad, the Cornerstone Mission’s coordinator for the Supportive Services for Veterans Families program. On average, the Cornerstone shelters 20-30 homeless veterans among its 120 guests every night of the year and provides them with everyday necessities ranging from clothes, coffee and creamer, to personal hygiene products, three square meals a day, and a sympathetic ear trained to listen to their troubles.
“It doesn’t take much when you have nothing,” said Conrad. “These vets have been out on the street, living in their vehicles, staying with friends and family, or coming out of jail, so they have nothing. Our ultimate goal is to house them, get them off the streets and transition them to permanent housing.”
Working with available resources, including beefed-up Veterans Administration programs designed to combat what the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans estimates are nearly 40,000 homeless vets on any given night, the Cornerstone mission has witnessed many such success stories.
“We’ve been very successful, and we worked with 280 veterans’ families last year alone,” said Conrad. “Many are like Francis. Our case managers helped them with budgeting, finding work and understanding what available resources exist.”
For Conrad, who generally shows up to work at 6 a.m. and doesn’t depart until 6 p.m., the work is rewarding, giving her a chance to help others, many of whom are at the lowest point of their lives.
“They are in need, and I feel honored God has put me in this spot where I can be of service to them,” she said. “They are broken, they’re hurt and they need that hand up.”
That hand up may be more needed than ever before. While a recent one-day count of homeless persons scattered across South Dakota showed an overall decrease of 19 percent, the number of homeless veterans had soared by 23 percent in the state.
Experts attribute the increase in homeless vets to a number of factors, including lingering PTSD, mental health issues, reliance on illegal drugs and alcohol, and a general lack of awareness among vets about the resources that are available to them.
Bobby Isom, a 48-year-old native of Princeton, W.V., who enlisted in the Marines while still in high school and was last posted at the presidential retreat known as Camp David before being discharged in 1989, recently found himself in the same dilemma Kaufman faced last December.
As a trucker, Isom admitted he took a couple of wrong turns in his life, racking up two DUI charges that cost him his certification, his job and his wife. He said at last count, he had been homeless seven times over the years.
Now sheltered at the Cornerstone Mission, Isom is using his time to upgrade his skills and has just started the summer semester at Western Dakota Tech, studying light duty automotive and diesel in an 18-month program. He hopes to one day open his own shop.
“The hardest thing about being homeless is, in my opinion, that feeling that you don’t have no one that cares, especially about our veterans,” Isom said while clad in his jacket and matching ball cap. “I am most proud of my service in doing my part for our country to keep it free. I would gladly do it all over again.”
Isom said he’s also proud that he gave up alcohol on March 27, the day he walked into the Cornerstone Mission. Since arriving, the solidly built vet hobbled by a recent knee injury said he had received nothing but good direction from the staff, and a sense of camaraderie from other vets he discovered who are in the same predicament.
“Before I came here, when my wife left me, I didn’t know where I was going,” he said. “I didn’t know where my life would take me. But I came here, they gave me a new perspective on life, and they gave me the support I needed to obtain my goals.
“All I know is we need more shelters in this country to care for our vets the way Cornerstone Rescue Mission cares for vets,” Isom added. “This is the only shelter I’ve ever seen that actually cares for our veterans.”
Jim Castleberry, a Rapid City attorney and university professor who has worked on the issue of homelessness for the past 15 years, said he had seen positive change in the local community as evidenced by support of the Cornerstone Rescue Mission Foundation, which he now heads.
But Castleberry added that homelessness is unlikely to simply vanish with time.
“Homelessness is not a choice,” said the former executive director of the local shelter. “People lose their homes, lose their jobs, there’s the mental health component, and it always will be an issue. A certain segment of the population will always be homeless.”
Castleberry said he was encouraged not only by the generous support by Rapid City residents for the Cornerstone Mission, but by Mayor Steve Allender’s recent initiatives to explore opportunities for affordable housing.
“What we do know is that when we closed a lot of the hotels and motels that had week-by-week rates, a whole bunch of people who lived there were back on the street,” he noted. “But there is a lot of positive energy going into addressing this need because we end up serving the homeless for extended periods because affordable housing simply doesn’t exist.”
The issue is prevalent in many American communities, he said.
“This is not unique to Rapid City,” Castleberry concluded. “Homelessness is a national issue, as is affordable housing. But, on the positive side, we have a community that is probably more informed and more engaged than ever before.”