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I’m sure in every city across our country, you have seen individuals standing at an intersection with a sign asking for help. I know some of these individuals are scammers and do okay collecting ‘donations’, but others don’t look well and genuinely need help.

Well, it turns out that earlier this week after I dropped my son off at his work, instead of meandering back roads back home, I took a turn towards the major thoroughfare here in Knoxville, called Kingston Pike. As I pulled up, I could not help but see a man, half hobbled on a crutch, with a two-word sign.

Homeless Vet.

Now, my wife’s career has focused on veteran healthcare, and over almost 20 years, I have heard hundreds of stories that have been shared with her. So it seemed just at this moment, seeing this individual and his sign, I pulled around the corner and circled back to him.

He had happened to begin walking away from the corner and I could see he appeared to be in pain, and he walked with a hobbling limp. He was headed to his pickup which was parked behind the gas station on the corner where he had been standing. He got in the car and we began to talk.

I learned a lot about Tim. He was in the Who’s Who of High School graduating seniors in 1979. He voluntarily joined the service and spent almost 4 years in Vietnam. I also learned, that due to family circumstances, he had to leave the military in a general discharge that unfortunately, was for an unacceptable reason. He, therefore, did not, and does not qualify for any Veterans Administration benefits. The most important benefit he would need today would be VA healthcare.

Well, I learned a lot more about Tim over the hour. He needed money. I could tell he needed money. He was living out of his truck. He said he had no cash. So I gave him cash, which he really appreciated. I knew he appreciated the cash because he was in full tears. When he was telling me his story, I could see the emotion in his eyes, which were tearing up. The cash made him cry. Still, the money did not seem to be enough.

I asked him what else he could need?

I had already figured out that Tim took advantage of charity services, and he was not too happy with those. I tried to get him to go to the VA office close by, but that was a no-go due to the negative general discharge. I was trying to figure out where else he could go for help.

Tim said, “I need a phone. My phone was stolen.” I ask if he would be able to contact family or others that could help him if he had a phone, and he said yes. It seemed to me that an investment in a phone for Tim would really help him out.

So we drove together to Wal Mart. I got him a phone and all else he’d need to use the phone in his car for two months, and we said goodbye. That’s when and where I asked to take a picture and he agreed.

The next day at lunch, I get a text. My phone was stolen and he needed help.

When I got to where Tim was located, he told me that the police warned him about panhandling. He shared with me the police are focusing on cleaning up the pan-handling problem and he got a clear warning. What I did not know the first day was that Tim is a Heroin Addict. This is the real truth in his life that he shared with me. Apparently, after our first day’s interaction, he had driven to the choicest location for purchase. At some point, he was in his car setting his phone up and then fell asleep. His phone was stolen while he slept.

I learned much more the second day, in particular the circumstances behind his drug use, and the impact on his life. I have seen the reality documentary series Intervention, so I have some idea of the issues. Just a couple of weeks ago, a six-chapter edition focused on the Heroin crisis in the Philadelphia, PA suburbs. I could see how difficult life is for users, and how hard it is for trained professionals to help addicts change their ways. So there I was with Tim.

I spent two hours spent with Tim that second day. I made many phone calls to help Tim with Detox. What I learned in real-time was:

  • Unfortunately in Knoxville/Knox County, there is such a limited number of Detox beds for the poor, that if an addict actually wanted help at their moment of withdrawal pain, they would be out of luck. To get a bed, the addict seeking help must call every day at 8:30 to see if there is a bed that has opened up. Friends or family cannot make the call. That’s what the Detox Center told me.
  • Cokesbury Church has a recovery program and offers the homeless a place to shower and clean clothes. They also have a recovery program on Thursdays that includes a meal, a service, and group sessions.
  • The power of withdrawal pain is so strong, that one will do anything to get another fix. Unfortunately, that is where Tim was on the second day. I asked and he told me the withdrawal pain had started two hours before he called me. Nothing I could say and no option for help would get him away from wanting his next fix.
  • However much I want to help Tim unless he is ready to be clean, there is not much I can do to help.

So what started out as an attempt to help a homeless vet turned into an attempt to help a homeless heroin-addicted vet.

As someone who has spent his professional career developing the skills to identify and create solutions to problems, this situation leaves me with a bit of a void. Solving homelessness is a major issue by itself. So is solving at a personal level an individual’s addiction issues. Need I say anything about the challenge of organized crime, drug distribution and sales, and our own propensity for needing something to feel better from illegal drugs or prescription drugs?

So, having the police address the pan-handling problem may make us feel more comfortable at a traffic stop since you won’t have to see anyone begging, but in reality, no problem has been solved.

I wonder where Tim is now.

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