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On the Coast: After Dramatic Rescue, Homeless Veteran Gets New Lease on Life

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Living in a tent in the woods near Ocean City is a Navy Veteran named Ronnie, one of the Eastern Shore's growing number of homeless people. An earlier story on Ronnie's life prompted dozens of emails from people wanting to help the Navy Veteran, but one email in particular may have led to a massive change in Ronnie's life.

Crawling into Ronnie's tent in the woods is 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.

Ronnie's face wasn't visible in the darkness, and the blankets that lined his 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.

He talked about his life as an Internet business owner: writing code and building websites in the days before Flash. He also 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, he talked about how hard it is to survive the winter and the difficulties he's had trying to get back on his feet.

"Well, its real easy for people to say 'all you gotta do is go get a job,' but try to go with one set of clothes you've been wearing for a month, you haven't had a shower in a month," he said. "Get out of that tent and go try to get a job somewhere."

After the story aired, emails came pouring in from folks who were touched by the story and wanted to help Ronnie, but one email in particular stood out.

"My name is Jerry Black and I'm the founder and director of the Veterans Support Centers of America...we call it VSCOA," the email read.

VSCOA is a shelter for homeless and disabled veterans on the Eastern Shore 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 a week later, 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," he says. "You go across the bridge and get over into western Maryland into the major metropolitan areas, and the services are there. But you get across the bridge and you drive out here, and even the most well connected veterans will tell you, as far as the services go, it's slim and none and none just 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 VA, 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 VA and waking the VA up to the fact that there is a major issue out here was a big part of what we had to do," Black says. "When we first approached the VA 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'll find he's a different individual than the one you saw in the tent,' Black says. "He's gone from being in that survival mode to an individual now that is laying out goals and plans and realizes he can put his life back together."

Now dressed in a crisp polo shirt and jeans in the main house, Ronnie is clean shaven and doing something he hadn't done in years: cooking.

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 now, he can start building websites, writing code, and most importantly, making some money again.

And he says it's made all the difference.

"I've come alive again," Ronnie says. "It's so nice to have a purpose in life again and not just be wandering aimlessly."

When still in his tent, Ronnie insisted 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 says homeless people go to shelters for the winter just to survive but that many of them plan to just go right back to 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," Ronnie says. "Even right now, this is it. This is my shot."

Jerry Black says that 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 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 think for a minute that the VA can handle all this. They can't," Black says. "They are a partner in all this. We have a responsibility to step up."

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.

[Music: "Fresh Feeling (Instrumental)" by Eels from Souljacker ]


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