MS. REBECCA SHEIR
The next person we'll meet today also got a fresh start in quite the dramatic way. Just before the holidays, coastal reporter Bryan Russo brought us a story about a man named Ronnie. At the time he was living in a tent in the woods near Ocean City, Md. Well, that story prompted dozens of people to send emails in hopes of helping the Navy Veteran. And as Bryan tells us, one of those messages led to a major change in Ronnie's life.
MR. BRYAN RUSSO
When I first crawled into Ronnie's tent in the woods it was like being swallowed up in that same sort of pitch blackness you only encounter when all your power goes out in the middle of the night.
MR. BRYAN RUSSO
Hi, Bryan. My name's Ronnie.
It was so dark I couldn't see his face, and the blankets that lined Ronnie's tent weren't soaking wet but they were far from dry. The chilly air was only warmed by Ronnie's lit cigarette and the abundant amounts of second-hand smoke. We talked about his life as an internet business owner, writing code and building websites in the days before Flash. We talked about his time in the military, and the series of unfortunate life events that forced him to live in that tent for the last three years. But mostly, we talked about how hard it is to survive the winter and the difficulties he's had trying to get back on his feet.
Well, it's real easy for people to say, "All you got to do is go get a job," but try to go with one set of clothes that you've been wearing for a month, you haven't had a shower for a month. "Get out of that tent and go get a job somewhere."
After the story aired, we received a bunch of emails from folks who were not only touched by the story, but also wanted to help. One email in particular caught my eye, and it was from this guy.
MR. JERRY BLACK
I'm Jerry Black, the founder and director of the Veterans Support Centers of America. We also call it VSCOA.
VSCOA is one of the only shelters for homeless and disabled veterans on the Eastern Shore. It's located in the little rural town of Quantico. When temperatures dipped into the single digits for a string of days and freezing rain pummeled the region, Black reached out and sent a representative to pick Ronnie up at a secondary location and take him in at their 50-acre facility known as Camp Royal Oak. He says if you are a homeless or disabled veteran living on the Eastern Shore, you don't have many options.
The rural veteran community is probably the most underserved veteran community that's out there. You go across the bridge and get over into western Maryland, into the major metropolitan areas, and the services are there. There's no doubt about it. But you cross the bridge and you drive out here, and even your most well-connected veteran, upper-middle class individual will tell you, as far as the services go, they're slim and none and, you know, slim left town.
Camp Royal Oak can house as many as 20 disabled and homeless veterans, and because the program is under the umbrella of the V.A., Black and his team can help vets find housing, jobs, and even treatment for things like PTSD. But he says the biggest challenge at the beginning was trying to quantify the problem.
Bringing the V.A. and waking the V.A. up to the fact that there is a major issue out here was a big part of what we had to do. When we first approached the V.A. back in 2008, they told me we had six homeless veterans on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. I can tell you right now we have over 250 any given night out here.
Black told me that sometimes it can take a while for guys at Camp Royal Oak to adjust back to a normal lifestyle after long periods of homelessness, but he says that hasn't been the case with Ronnie.
He's transforming before our very eyes, and I think you're going to find he's a different individual that you out there in the tent. He's gone from being in that survival mode to an individual now that is laying out plans and goals and realizes that he can put his life back together.
I found Ronnie dressed in a crisp polo shirt and jeans in the main house. He was clean shaven and doing something he hadn't done in years, cooking. He lit up when he saw me and told me that he had something he was even more excited to show me.
And there it is.
His first bed in more than three years.
Mine's right here. The bottom bunk. It holds four people in this room. Right now I do have a roommate. The other rooms are all -- they've got their own room. Dresser, closet, keep it clean every single day, make the bed every morning.
That first night when you came in here, what was it like? What was going through your head?
It was amazing. The first that they had me do was wash my clothes. They already had the bed made for me. Fed me right away. And then I got to sleep in a warm house, in a warm bed and woke up the next morning, got to eat breakfast. Didn't have to do chores the first couple of days, but now I'm going over and beyond what I really need to do because I appreciate what these people have done for me.
And Ronnie isn't just passing the time doing chores at Camp Royal Oak, the folks at VSCOA are helping to get him caught up with all the things in the computer world he's missed during his years in the woods. So he can start building websites, writing code, and most importantly, making some money again. He says it's made all the difference.
I've come alive again. It's so nice to, you know, have a purpose in life again and not just be wandering aimlessly, you know, and don't know what you're going to do from one day to the next. And where I was in the woods in West Ocean City, I had to walk to get something to eat, four miles, into Ocean City where the churches are that feed folks like us. You know I was a minimum of 10 to 15 miles a day.
I remember Ronnie telling me in his tent that he was done with being homeless, and that he was going to pray that someone would hear his voice on the radio and help him. Now standing in his room, he no longer looked despondent and desperate. He looked driven and determined. He told some homeless people go to shelters for the winter just to survive, but many of them plan to go right back into the woods when the weather gets warmer. He says this time he's not going back.
I felt that as soon as I walked in the door, and definitely in the first couple days. And even right now, I mean, this is it. This is my shot.
Jerry Black says while Ronnie's progress is a wonderful exception to the rule, he knows it's still a rough road ahead because jobs are hard to find here on the shore, and there are a growing number of people, both civilians and veterans, who find themselves living on or below the poverty line.
We have a responsibility. Don't, for a minute, think the V.A. can handle all this. They can't. They are a partner in this. We, our community, you and me, our neighbors, we have a responsibility to step up. And it's not easy. If you're dealing with someone with post-traumatic stress and you think they just went crazy, no, man. You know, they're dealing with issues that you and I, thankfully, never have to. They took that bullet, so to speak.
The view from Ronnie's bunk is a vast forest. He says every night he looks out into the darkness of those woods, and realizes that just a few weeks ago, he was out there and now he's in here.
I feel like I'm home.
And for Ronnie, that's all he's been asking God for, every single night for three-plus years, right before he laid his head down to sleep in his tent. I'm Bryan Russo.
Time for a break, but when we return we'll continue our look at D.C.'s McMillan Sand Filtration site and ask residents how they feel about plans for the site's future.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1
The biggest tragedy about this site is the city treating it like it's just a Ward 5 project. It is a Washington, D.C. project. It is a nation's project.
And later this hour, a fresh start for a major proponent of smart growth.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2
We had to rediscover the principles of city making.
Those stories and more are coming up on "Metro Connection," here on WAMU 88.5.
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