When you serve in the military, there’s a certain bond you have with your fellow service members. You often hear phrases like “we leave no service member behind.” It’s a motto that showcases the common bond our men and women in uniform share.
“I felt like that's what was going on here at the Salvation Army,” said Tina, who recently moved into her own home after a 12-week stay in the Salvation Army Center of Hope’s program for veterans. “No one is being left behind. People are being made to feel like their situation is important and it's solvable.”
But, Tina didn’t always feel important. Many days, it was quite the opposite. She was being left behind.
Tina joined the Navy right out of high school; in fact, she celebrated her 18th birthday during boot camp. She was stationed in Hawaii and had a very successful military service, receiving an honorable discharge. She never saw combat, but she was fighting her own battles on multiple fronts in her personal life.
After raising her family in Honolulu, watching her kids grow up, move out and have kids of their own, Tina became the victim of domestic violence. “I never expected my life was going to change. And, unfortunately, I was the one asked to leave the house. I was the one who became homeless. It really just became a struggle after that.”
Homelessness has reached crisis level in Hawaii. According to recent reports, there are more than 7,000 homeless in Hawaii -- the highest per capita rate in the nation.
“You are so alone at the time you are out there on the street, and it's so dangerous,” she recalls. “Your mind … you are just in this survival mode.”
Despite her circumstances and against the odds, Tina found herself on a tarmac in Hawaii filming President Obama. She has a background in television, having largely taught herself the basics of filming and conducting interviews.
“Standing there homeless and filming the President of the United States, and I said, ‘this is my hope, this is my inspiration.’ It was really inspiring to be standing there with a White House press pass knowing my circumstances of the moment. Even where I am – being homeless – doesn't define me right now. I know things are going to get better.”
But, things didn’t get better, at least not immediately. While still struggling with her homelessness, Tina was diagnosed with breast cancer. In Honolulu, she was having difficulty receiving the care she needed, while struggling to access any resources to help her find lodging.
Tina’s daughter was living in Charlotte and having issues with a pregnancy, so she offered to fly her mom here. While in North Carolina, “I said I can either go back to Honolulu and continue to be homeless on the streets or I can see if I can get the help here.”
Working through the VA, she was told there was space at the Salvation Army Center of Hope. This was her first “yes” after a string of “no’s” in Hawaii. “I just kept on every day...even though I was told no, I'm not going to give up. I'm going to keep on. I know that sooner or later, someone is going to help. That's what I would tell people. I’d say ‘don’t worry how many no’s you get, just don't give up.’”
Tina moved into the Salvation Army Center of Hope, and immediately felt the difference a good night’s sleep, can make.
She had been living in her car. She had multiple surgeries and radiation treatment associated with her cancer. And, recovery was especially difficult without a home, a bathroom and shower – or a bed.
“The first couple of nights, I just couldn’t believe I was sleeping in a bed and I was safe,” she said. “That sleep, I just cherished that. It was just so therapeutic to have the staff and know that they are there to help.”
Each veteran in the Center of Hope’s VA program receives an individual treatment plan customized for their specific needs. While each plan is personal, they can include consistent components, or goals, as they are applicable: housing; income; mental health or substance abuse; education; and personal.
“Tina is exceptional. She is the quintessential veteran,” said Leah Schumacher, who oversees the Center of Hope’s VA program. “She was very methodical in the way she did everything. She wrote everything down, she had a calendar, she was so proactive. Tina is somebody who is motivated, disciplined, and given the structured communal environment, she was able to flourish and move forward.”
Tina entered the Center of Hope in the middle of February. By May, with the help of the Center of Hope’s staff and the HUD-Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing (HUD-VASH) program, Tina found a home. She’s settling in, and her cancer is in remission. She’s no longer in survival mode, she’s in recovery mode.
“One thing I think is so important is the Salvation Army Center of Hope is not just a catchphrase,” she said. “It’s really a place that took me off the street and out of danger. The staff sees beyond your circumstance and they really see you as a whole person. You are seen as person again, not as a homeless burden to society.”