In the beginning, you have daughters, sons, mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters. Whole families during happier times. They are happy, then for one reason or another, they join the military. They go to war, see horrible, horrifying things.
You come back. Maybe you're okay. But maybe you're not. How do you live with what you saw? What you did? Maybe you're on drugs. Maybe you turn to alcohol. You are separated from society. Society doesn't want you now. Not the way you are. You think maybe you deserve this life. You think maybe there's no going back.
There are 27,000 homeless veterans living in the city of Los Angeles. The largest homeless veteran population in the United States. Many live with substance abuse and mental health disorders.
New Directions is a facility in Los Angeles, that gives back to those homeless veterans that walk the streets of Los Angeles. They give back dignity; they give back pride; they give back self-respect and most of all, they give back the life that was lain on the line for each and every one of us.
"This is a long program," says John Hill director of the detox phase and graduate of New Directions. "1 – 2 years. The average guy that comes in here has been in the streets for a long time or been in their disease for a long time. We address the issue of alcoholism, but we don’t just treat the disease. We treat the person."
"We assess their needs. Sometimes they come in here with nothing. They need it all. Clothing, underwear, toiletries, sheets and towels. We furnish it all. We have a penthouse upstairs. We make sure all they need to do is come in here and detox. If you have a problem even psychological issues. We give them a safe place to relax, to get clean, to get their thinking clear so they can make a decision as to what to do with their future. We empower the veteran so he can return to the community and have a successful life."
"Most of the men and women who come through this program have spent years living in the streets, mostly under bridges, so acquiring this building was a blessing. When we remodeled we wanted to make it home. We wanted to make it familiar, so if you look up, you can see the ceiling is unfinished with exposed beam. The architect designed it to remind them of being homeless under freeway passes. It’s a sense of openness without making them feel closed in. They are used to the freedom of it all. Just to remind them that they are not closed in." says LaShanda Maze, Community Relations/Media Specialist for New Directions Choir.
Maze continues, "Every one who walks through that door gets so much more than recovery. They get a new family. They are surrounded by brothers and sisters who have all walked exactly where they are at now. They are assigned a big brother who stay with them every step of the way through this program. From detox to graduation. Once they have graduated into phase two not only does their big brother stay with them, but now they are a big brother to a new resident. 'They can now say I have been where you are.'
In fact this program is so successful that 40% of our graduates are hired through the program. This way they can share their experience with them. I have been through this. I have been where you are. I have walked through those doors. I have slept here. I have been where you are."
George Hill graduate of New Directions and the New Directions Choir Director talks freely of his homeless past.
"Being homeless was the most miserable thing I ever did in my life. You get comfortable eating out of garbage cans. You get comfortable sleeping on the ground. I was out there for 13 years. And I was like a ghost. What’s really amazing I didn’t think I had a story even though I was homeless for 13 years. I lived in MacArthur Park, the most violent park in the world. But that still wasn’t a story to me. What happened that I finally decided to make a change?
I got out of yet another incarceration. I was already tired of it. I was sitting on the corner of 5th and spring. I was out there in the middle of all these homeless people. I see somebody come along with rags on their feet. Rags tied on their feet! I was like ‘that’s terrible.' You could watch him and see that he was a little mentally challenged. He was so dirty that he was black except where his knuckles bent over his shopping cart. He hair was just matted in two big nasty dreads, and I was just like’ that’s terrible. I sure am glad I’m not that bad.’
Now he’s walkin by all these homeless people. All of them, and there were a lot, and he looked down at me and kind of smiled. He pulled out a dollar bill and dropped it in my lap and said here man I feel sorry for you. I just put on my mental brakes and shook my head and said what? As I watched him shuffle away, I am sittin therewith smoke billowin out of my ears, and I see all these homeless people he passed by, and I’m thinkin ‘you feel sorry for me? Dude I feel sorry for you!'
There was something about that that just said no, no, no. I gotta get some help. From that moment on I didn’t want another drink. I didn’t want any drugs. I didn’t want anything but help. Somehow I thought there had to be somethin out there for me and I decided to come in here and never look back. So now I have been blessed enough to have my life back. And now with my music, I can give back. I can help by showing people that there is help for all of us.
So there was a period of time when you may not have wanted to see us coming. People wouldn’t even look at me. Or if I walked up to them, they’d get to grabbing their purses, lock their doors, turn to the right, turn to the left. They'd think it’s a disease, and it’s a contagious.
One thing people don't realize is how much wreckage is in your past when you're homeless. They don't see the the violence of the streets. But now, I get a chance to tell people what happened. I get to tell them I’d rather be homeless sometimes than in the missions. I like to let people know that if it wasn’t for that hot cup of coffee in the middle of the night when I really didn’t care if I lived or died, that’s what happened to me. That cup of coffee meant the world to me. That day old doughnut saved my life.
I’d like to let them know that they are not just casting their pearls to swine. That people do recover. They get help and come back and become productive. And they help other people get back on their feet. And all those things together you can’t beat it. It works out pretty well. But the fact is this shows what change can do and that people can change.
Carleton Griffin, another graduate of New Directions and the bass singer for the choir, talks about his 25 years living in the streets of Los Angeles and how New Directions gave him the ability to live life again, not just exist in it.
"I am a Vietnam vet. When I came home between the nightmares and all the other stuff, well, when I discharged from the service, I was a heroin addict. I tried to deal with it as best I could. I tried cold turkey. I tried not to do it, but I didn’t have the skills. I didn’t know how to do what I needed to do. So I just went on with it.
Long story short for the next 25 years I was homeless. In and out of jails; penitentiaries. The last time I got out I made myself a promise that if I ever got in trouble again, I’d go to the VA. I would get help. A man gotta get up, try it again and learn from the mistakes that you made. So I found myself going down the path again and I walked here from South Central LA.
In October of 2000 I just took off walking. About 28 miles. I came here, walked in the door and told the guys behind the desk I needed help. I got into the program and spent 28 days in detox going through heroin withdrawal. It took about 17 days before I finally got to sleep. I had done it before but always because I had to. I was locked up. This time I did it for me. So I stayed. I got through the program. Got hired by the program and now. Now I sing. I always sang through my homeless days."
I will never forget meeting and getting to know some of these brave men and women of the New Directions Choir, and I hope with all of my heart that I get to stay in contact with them. They are amazing, and I would be proud to call them friends. In fact, it is my hopes that enough people will want them to come to Portland and share their stories first hand. Of course I hope to be able to sing Amazing Grace with them one day. No truer words were ever written for a more deserving group of men and women.
But the final words of Carleton Griffin are the ending of this story. His words will always echo through my mind and are the epitome of what I am trying to accomplish with this walk.
"Everybody deserves a chance, another chance. Not necessarily a second chance, but another chance."
The men and women you see in the video below were never meant to come back from the streets. They were the statistics that said 'There's no hope for you. You may as well give up,' They had lived through the horror of war, and now having survived years in the rough streets of Los Angeles, they are living proof that they may have at one time been fallen warriors, but today they are the rising eagles. Rising Eagles that do this country proud.
PLEASE. Watch the video. It is a life altering experience.