Once homeless, veteran now serves others

James at HVAF
James Miller has had many titles over the years; husband, U.S. Air Force veteran, volunteer, but there was one title he never thought he would have − homeless.

A native of Indianapolis, James moved back home and after enlisting in the U.S. Air Force in 1978 where he worked as a nuclear weapons technician and an electronics technician at the North American Air Defense Command (NORAD).

Following four years of service, James went on to receive an engineering degree from ITT Tech in Indianapolis.

After graduating from college, James’ struggles began. He was employed, but turned to drugs as a source of recreation.

In 1993, due to drug use James became homeless and began couch-surfing, staying at shelters and abandoned homes. To support his drug habit, he sold his belongings. He was homeless for ten years.  While it may be difficult to comprehend for those who have never experienced homelessness, James said that reintegrating was difficult because he actually became accustomed to being homeless.

With limited options, he learned about HVAF during a visit to the Veterans Affairs benefits office and decided to enter HVAF’s recovery program in 2002. His journey out of homelessness was not without set-backs. It took him four years to graduate from the program because he relapsed.

HVAF’s recovery program helps homeless veterans recover from substance abuse and drugs and reintegrate into meaningful employment in the civilian labor force through a variety of services that address the complex problems they face.

James continued to visit HVAF periodically after he left the recovery program. It’s where he learned of a job opportunity at HVAF as Peer Mentor. He was hired in 2012. As Peer Mentor, James travels to three housing properties: Warman, Manchester, and Moreau to meet with veterans and their case managers to identify those who are struggling and in need of a “mentor.”

James also manages two groups which meet weekly. The Vet to Vet group allows veterans the chance to bond and share their struggles and be supportive of one other. A Recovery group aimed at focusing on veterans who are dealing with a substance use disorder is also facilitated by James.

“I am not afraid to be transparent with my own struggles with addiction and homelessness,” says James. “Having been a former client and having struggled for so long it impressed upon me this notion that what I do really matters. HVAF has been a big part of my life and if I can help one person then everything I went through had a purpose and value.”

James keeps a busy schedule.

In May 2013, James received an Associate Degree in Human Services from Ivy Tech.
In June, James received a “Case Manager Certificate” from the Indianapolis Case Management Institute (ICMI)  which is a 6-month training program launched by United Way of Central Indiana designed to help case managers serving at-risk individuals who need services and techniques for self-care to prevent burnout.

James is also a full-time student at IUPUI and will receive his BA in Social Work in May 2017.

He is using his journey through homelessness to inspire others. 


Once homeless veteran maneuvers the job market

Leah T., a previously homeless U.S. Army veteran, came to HVAF for housing in 2014. She had hopes of finding a job as a medical assistant, but she lacked experience. She also faced medical issues and was recovering from years of mental abuse.

“It was a long 4 years of homelessness simply because I was stubborn,” says Leah. “If I would have not focused so hard on finding a medical assistant position I would have done something else.”

At HVAF, Leah met with employment specialists who helped open her eyes to other employment opportunities.  Employment specialists helped her improve her resume and attend job fairs. In July, Leah secured full-time permanent employment at Amazon Fulfillment Center. She is working 40 hours per week and moved into her own permanent housing.

“I am looking forward to getting my first paycheck,” says Leah. “It has been a long time coming.”

Leah has not given up on her dream of becoming a medical assistant. She plans to take certification classes and learning everything she can as well as to continue visiting those who helped her at HVAF.

“I have worked with Leah for several years and it is great to see the transformation that has taken place,” says Employment Coordinator Chasiti Herring. “She is motivated and goes the extra mile to attend hiring fairs and submit applications. Leah has come a long way.”

Leah will also be giving back to HVAF by volunteering each Thursday sorting and stocking donations that come into the food and clothing pantry.

Homeless veteran at HVAF receives new bed at age 56

In 2014, Terri, 56, walked into HVAF in need of housing. She carried very little; only her DD214 card proving she was a veteran of the U.S. Air Force. The card is all she needed. HVAF provided her with a furnished apartment, food, hygiene items and clothing. It was an adjustment, but so was homelessness. Terri was finally getting the help she needed.

Once housed at HVAF, Terri no longer needed to find shelter. She began attending group meetings on a range of mental health issues, including depression, bipolar disorder and PTSD. She attended meetings at the VA.  Because of her mental health issues she says it has been difficult to hold down a job.

At HVAF, Terri was referred to HUD VASH and she soon started receiving disability payments and permanent supportive housing. She also qualified for a federally funded program which allowed her to receive a new bed, bedding and assistance with her car repairs. Thanks to the Supportive Services for Veteran Families program Terri received her first new bed. 

“They set me up with a bed and at 56 it is the first new bed I've ever owned,” expressed Terri as she knelt down and cried “I really appreciate it.”

All of these resources were offered to her because she came to HVAF.

Today, Terri is living in her own apartment and receives ongoing mental health treatment at the VA. She also has reunited with her 18-year old cat, Isabella.

Homeless veteran who once lived on $133 a month finds his way again

Donell Marzett, 59, served in the U.S. Army during significant international conflicts. Now, he’s helping other veterans face and win some of the toughest battles of their lives. He doesn’t talk about his time in service, but he is a proud soldier who followed in the footsteps of his father and two uncles by choosing a career in the infantry.

“When I was in the Army, I always had a feeling of purpose, but when I got home I felt as though I lost that purpose and had to find my way again. I was so used to the structure that the military provides and civilian life seemed jarring. I was trying to figure out where I fit in and what sort of career to enter,” said Donell.

When his service ended, Donell’s hardships began. Depression soon followed.

Donell suffered from anxiety and turned to drugs before ending up at the VA Hospital following an attempted suicide. For two years, he lived in an abandoned house in Terre Haute leaning on the skills he learned in the military. He relied on external sources of heat to stay warm.

Then, things got worse. In 2010, he was arrested by the U.S. Marshalls for child support payments and spent eight days in jail and was sentenced to four years of probation.

“After my arrest I had to start all over again, and for several months I lived on $133 a month,” said Donell.

It was then he returned to Indianapolis where the majority of his service providers are located and in 2015 Donell came to HVAF for housing.  Once housed, he enrolled and completed classes in mental health services and sobriety at the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA).

His Case Manager, Doneeka Gunn, at HVAF helped connect him with services.

“I have watched Donell go through some of life’s most challenging times and then relish in the good times,” says Case Manager Doneeka Gunn. “He did not give up. HVAF was with him every step of the way in providing him with the resources that he needed to get him on his feet.”

Today, Donell works as a talent engagement specialist at WorkOne. He is ready to give back by helping veterans who were once in his shoes. His future goals include moving into his own home, purchasing a car, and continuing his commitment to his job.