About 20 percent of the clients at Columbus House are Veterans – in the shelters, in transitional programs, and in permanent supportive housing. The sad truth is some are still on the streets. Not long ago, one of those was Mark, who now lives in an old Victorian home on Davenport Avenue owned by Columbus House. Harkness House, as it is called, provides transitional housing and support for up to 14 male veterans.
In November 2011, Mark moved to New Haven from North Carolina, where he’d lived for 26 years. He had heard that the VA hospitals in Connecticut offered excellent services and he knew he had serious mental health and substance abuse issues. He wanted help.
“I joined the Navy when I was 18 and spent a year on the USS Goldsboro, a guided missile destroyer stationed in Hawaii. It was 1976. I’m dealing with some post-traumatic stress from events from when I was in the Navy. These events cut my Naval career short and continue to affect me to this day.”
Mark, though well-educated and both musically and dramatically talented, struggled with addiction for most of his life. His military experience exacerbated his problems. Then after back surgery seven years ago, he became addicted to the pain medication Vicodin. That got him back to an old cocaine habit.
“I almost believe I was predestined to be an addict. Even as a kid. My dad and mom were both alcoholics. And once you get heavy into addiction, you lose everything. Your job, your family, your home. And then you’re out on the street. Nowhere to go. Nobody to talk to. It’s a very lonely place.”
Shortly after he moved to Connecticut, the friends he'd been staying with threw him out because of his cocaine use.
“I don’t blame them. My friend brought me to the VA Medical Center in West Haven. I stayed there for two days. It was scary, but it was a good thing. After being at the West Haven VA Hospital, I went to a detox program for nine days at St. Francis Hospital in Hartford. I learned about Harkness House through the VA Medical Center.”
But before Mark could move into Harkness House, he needed to be addiction-free for 60 days. He was admitted to First Steps, an inpatient day substance abuse program at the VA. His VA clinician told him about availability at the Beth El Shelter in Milford and his psychologist told him about Harkness House. He moved into Beth El and continued his treatment every day at the VA – therapy, addiction programs, support groups, PTSD group, classes.
“The most sobriety I’ve had in 30 years was 67 days. I had been in and out of rehab since 1982. It's not easy to admit that. I was lost in my addiction. I was full of shame and embarrassment.”
Mark managed to stay clean and sober for 60 days. The VA referred him to Columbus House. He was interviewed and admitted to Harkness House by Bill Augustine, who became his case manager.
"I had been homeless for about 16 months of the past three years. I hated the shelter life, though I was grateful that I had someplace to live. When I first came to the Harkness House apartment, it was like heaven. Everyone was very hospitable. The staff pay real close attention to you and take you step by step. I feel very supported. I’ve never had that before."
The goals at Harkness House are to provide stable housing for veterans, increase access to services, expand social and employment skills, grow self-determination, and encourage reconnection to their communities. Mark meets with his case manager weekly. They have worked out a service plan with his short-term and long-term goals. Mark continues his treatment at the VA. He’s been working to increase his physical activity level by walking. He enjoys art projects, particularly abstract coloring.
“I’m right on the heels of six months sobriety now. Six months might not seem like a big deal to most people, but to me it’s huge. That says a lot about the programs at the VA and Columbus House. Something I value about Columbus House is that they really care, I see it in all the people I’ve met. A big part of my recovery has been being with people who really follow through. Columbus House staff do that.”
Mark believes that addiction and mental health issues are the source of most of the homelessness in the U.S. Mark is on a road to recovery but the process of finding solutions is not quick or easy. He still has a ways to go.
“They say that the definition of addiction is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. You go around and around until you can’t do it anymore. But finally I feel like I’m on the right road. I believe I can have a meaningful life again. And Columbus House will have played a big role. Not just because they provide shelter but because they provide more. They integrate everything. They know it’s the combination of housing and counseling and treatment programs and goal setting. With all that in place, you can’t lose, if you’re willing.”