Robert Whitehead Jr. served his country from the 16th of May, 1974, to the 25th of March, 1977, he says crisply. Air Force. Vietnam, in a non-combat support role, he adds. His medical problems, including chronic schizophrenia, were later judged to be "non-service related," which means his disability pension from the Veterans Administration is just $985 a month, half what he'd receive for a service-related disability.
"Subsistence," he says softly, not complaining. "Yes, sir."
Whitehead was among the veterans who turned out March 26 for Capital Area Homeless Veterans Stand Down, an annual event organized by the Wake County Department of Human Services and held at Cornerstone, a counseling center for the homeless in the Boylan Heights neighborhood of Raleigh.
Despite heavy rains, about 175 men showed up—most but not all of them veterans—to receive free food, clothing, blankets and packs and to get help, if they wanted it, finding medical services, housing, jobs and educational programs.
Frank Lawrence, director of the county-run South Wilmington Street Center, a homeless shelter for men, said the purpose of the day was "easy access to as many resources as possible," including programs run by the Veterans Administration, county agencies and local nonprofits.
A lot of the men who came are regulars at his shelter, Lawrence explained. But other men who live on the streets aren't able, for various reasons, to come into a government office or facility for help. So the county brings the help to them in front of a building that's considered friendly territory.
"I think that, most of all," Lawrence said, nodding toward a line of men waiting for clothing, "these guys understand that the community cares about them."
Whitehead, in fact, lives at the South Wilmington Street shelter, where he's getting help with "medical maintenance"—managing the medicines he needs to be able to live independently. Problems in this regard caused him to be evicted a few months ago from a place he shared with his brother, he said. They plan to live together again when he's ready. "Yes, sir," he answered a question sociably, "I think I'll be able to handle that with education and the help I'm getting."
Another man who came, Travis Fry, said he moved to Raleigh from West Virginia after being shot in the face a couple of years ago, when he was 29. He's not a veteran, he said, and has no family anywhere. Unemployed and homeless, he stays at the South Wilmington Street shelter when he can get in, and otherwise, sleeps "just wherever—on the streets."
The shelter has 234 beds, with most reserved for men who are enrolled in one of its programs; a fluctuating number of beds are available to others, forcing the use of a lottery system on busy nights.
Shy and self-conscious, Travis apologized several times because his "speech patterns" were off, though he sounded quite lucid. He did allude to some secrets he's supposed to keep about what happened two years ago. He was caught in a gang ambush, he added, though he himself was not a gang member, just "acting foolish." Now, his goal is to get enough money to buy a truck, which would help him get jobs in construction or landscaping.
"Right now," he said, "I'm just trying to get my life together and get off the streets. It takes time," he added, almost in a whisper. "The bullet slowed me down, but it ain't got me thinking down.
"It's a good life," he said. "Not being homeless. Just being thankful that I made it through again."