Robert White, 52, has spent the last 11 years homeless. The U.S. Army veteran says he “was in a bad relationship, made some bad choices and lost my apartment.” He was also addicted to alcohol.
He panhandled in downtown Dallas during the day. “Nighttime I rode the trains to get what sleep I could,” the Georgia native says.
“It’s been hard,” he says. “It wasn’t easy on the streets. It would have been tougher if I didn’t trust in God.” After being drunk for 20 years, he says he’s now sober. “You can’t run from your past,” he says, “and I give God the glory. I’m not trying to be a religious freak, but that’s just the way I feel.”
Because homeless veterans engage in a revolving door of temporary and transitional housing, it’s hard to find a reliable count. Nationwide, the Census Bureau estimates there are 50,000 homeless veterans. Ken Watterson, president of the Veterans Resource Center in southern Dallas, thinks there may be as many as 5,000 homeless veterans in North Texas.
Robert White served in the army from 1987-90. His specialty was mortars. He was in South Korea for a year, including three months on the Demilitarized Zone. Then he was stationed at Fort Knox, Ky. After an honorable discharge he drove trucks for a time.
Then his life skidded into the streets.
An imperfect storm of booze, bad decisions and a failed hookup sent him under the bridges and into the doorways of downtown Dallas. “I didn’t make any friends on the street,” he says. “I made acquaintances. God is my true friend who I can trust.” When he could, he followed his home teams — the Atlanta Braves and the Atlanta Falcons. “After 11 years in Dallas I’m about halfway to being a Cowboys fan.”
White now lives in transitional housing for veterans in Tyler. A shuttle travels to Dallas four days a week so he and others can come to the resource center, get dental care and take care of other chores. He gets by on veterans disability payments and Social Security.
The center offers a variety of services. One recent morning 100 or more homeless veterans shuffled into a line for a holiday lunch with all the trimmings. Rickey Butler was the chef, a job he also held for President George W. Bush in Crawford. Most diners were men, but a few women filled their trays.
The center provides a laundry, showers, shaving kits, a computer room, TV room and a barber twice a week. Bob Mitchell, building and outreach coordinator, was in the army in Vietnam. Like Watterson, he’s an unpaid volunteer. “We must have had 400 veterans here on Monday,” he says.
White has stayed in touch with his family in Georgia. His mother and father are still alive, he’s got three siblings and two sons. “Every week I talk to them,” he says. “I communicated even when I was on the street. Now I talk with my mom at least twice a day.”
As for younger veterans from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, White gets animated. “Seize help,” he says. “Don’t let your pride as a soldier keep you from seeking help. Go to your local VA. Don’t wait 25 or 30 years. A lot of them are turning tragic — suicide and homicide.”
Around his right wrist Robert wears a yellow band. Support Our Troops is printed on it. There’s also a number to call if he feels suicidal: 800 273-8255, Press 1.
“It’s hard to tell someone with their natural pride as an American soldier — but swallow your pride!” he says. Seek help. It don’t mean you’re crazy.”
Mike Tharp writes an occasional column about veterans issues for The Dallas Morning News. Tharp, a former Wall Street Journal reporter, is a U.S. Army Vietnam veteran who received the Bronze Star. He’s interested in your ideas for the column. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org