Eckhart: The painful path to homelessness
First Community Housing's Second Street Studios in San Jose. File photo.

    I was asked to write a short story about my experience in the military and then take that experience and write a quick couple of paragraphs on my experience as a homeless vet.

    I can’t do that easily because we are talking about two different times in my life.

    I went into the military right out of high school. I mean, I literally walked off the stage, got into a cab that was waiting and went straight to boot camp.

    My reasons were simple. I wanted out of California that bad. I knew even at that age there was so much more to life than just California.

    I was not big into sports in high school. Don’t get me wrong. I loved playing sports. But for reasons I was not aware of, by the time I hit high school, my joints already were deteriorating from arthritis.

    This I know now — back then I had no clue that’s what it was. All I knew was I was in constant pain. Because I have never believed in prescription medicine from doctors, I self-medicated with pot. At that age, I had no clue that was what I was doing. I just knew I loved smoking pot.

    I knew this was not going to fly in the service so I quit pot before I went in. Needless to say, eight weeks of basic training physically was a living hell. Every day was a struggle. I had to push myself harder than the average person. And going to my superiors was out of the question. They would have sent me home. That surely was not happening.

    Following boot camp, I went home to take care of some things. That’s when I was involved in a significant car accident. The accident left me in bad shape but I refused to give in to the pain that would land me right back in San Jose.. I was determined to serve and see the world.

    After serving for several years as an underwater demolition expert diving every day, I eventually gave in to the constant pain and started self-medicating with pot again. That caught up to me and I was discharged from the military.

    After several years of service with an “Other than Honorable Discharge,” known as a general discharge, still not knowing what it was, I suffered from arthritis compounded with the shame.

    I spent the next couple of years in an evil lonely space of drug addiction and found myself unable to keep a job. After a couple of years of this crazy vicious downward spiral, I picked myself up and went into rehab.

    I spent the next 10 years in the recovery rooms of Santa Cruz, where I learned to deal with my crack habit. On Sept. 6, with God’s help, I will accomplish 23 years clean.

    But that did not stop all of the pain I was experiencing every day. And that alone kept me from being able to continue work for any length of time. After so many years clean, my girlfriend and I moved to Utah.

    In Utah, we ended up homeless. In the middle of winter with 3-plus feet of snow on the ground, we found ourselves living in a 10-by-10 storage unit and telling ourselves we were OK.

    That is the disease of addiction. And we were not even doing drugs — just physically and mentally not able to work.

    With $20 in our pockets, we left Utah and returned to California. We spent the next 12-plus years homeless. For several years, we survived on $240 a month. That is God’s truth.

    By the time we reached San Jose, we traveled through two states with only $20. Both of us were born and raised in San Jose so we knew what we were coming home to — so we thought.

    What does any of this have to do with being a vet? Everything.

    The one thing that gets me going on a rampage is the disrespect one faces being homeless. I could not believe that I sacrificed my time, my life and at times my pride to be constantly disrespected and talked down to. We knew what needed to change and found ourselves fighting for the next 12 years for the rights of the homeless. I am talking standing toe to toe with the men in blue, demanding respect.

    Where are we today? Well, we are 13½ years older and I would like to think a little smarter and wiser. Today my girl and I live indoors at Second Street Studios. I have found out it is severe arthritis that had plagued me my whole life.

    Since my time here at Second Street Studios, I’ve taken full advantage of opportunities. I have met powerful community leaders and have had the opportunity to work alongside some of the best in the housing industry.

    Because of these kind people, I have been able to pursue my passion for helping the homeless. Today, I am working with Nation’s Finest, a nonprofit helping homeless veterans find and keep housing.

    I am privileged to work side by side with some of San Jose’s best from organizations like Destination: Home, HomeFirst, Goodwill, the San Jose City Council, San Jose Housing Authority and Sacred Heart.

    What I have come to learn is that what you might view as being in the wrong place for the wrong reasons is right where you are meant to be.

    Michael Eckhart is part of a group of current and formerly homeless columnists writing for San José Spotlight’s In Your Backyard column to shine a light on the homeless experience in Silicon Valley.

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