Better Boxes

Military veterans should never be homeless. Nevertheless, I know all too well that many veterans, especially those impacted by mental illness and substance abuse, end up on the streets just as I did.

How does it feel to be homeless? It’s scary. I’ve experienced some pretty heavy stuff in my life, especially during my time in the service; but never had I experienced such a negative feeling as the helplessness I knew when sleeping on the streets. It wasn’t that I was sleeping in a place without a locked door; it was that I felt lost.

I once was lost, but since have found a new life. Today, I help veterans and other Oklahomans experiencing mental illness and homelessness find a safe place to live in Mental Health Association Oklahoma’s housing and recovery programs. Once our clients have an apartment, we connect them with the recovery supports they need to rebuild their lives.

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To get to this point in my recovery, I first had to survive two years, six months, four days and three hours in the Army, two-and-a-half years of homelessness and two decades of addiction.

I grew up in Ponca City, Oklahoma, the son of a car salesman and a wedding planner. Two months after I turned 18 years old, I joined the Army, where I served during the Vietnam conflict.

When I got out of the Army in 1971, all I had in the world was a green Army duffle bag filled with the only clothes I owned. I was also struggling with undiagnosed Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and an extremely serious substance abuse problem.

When you’re in the service, self-sufficiency is beaten into your head; you can overcome any problem by yourself. That’s why I tried to get sober on my own. It was difficult to admit I needed help. Today I see the tremendous value of the VA; but at that time in my life, I was angry at “the system” and didn’t feel as if anybody understood what I was going through.

Despite my efforts to stay sober, I relapsed. By 1983, I was divorced and living in my truck in Arkansas. While I was homeless, I was shot and stabbed. As I recovered from my injuries, I remember thinking that although I had survived my time in the service, I wasn’t sure I would live through homelessness.

But I did. Life turned around; I married again and only to divorce in 1995. Once again I was homeless. I wanted to see my son. By this time, I had been on the streets for almost a year. I was full of shame for being homeless for the second time. I would go to a service station, wash up and do my best to look good; then I would pick up my son at his mom’s house. Thank God, he never knew I was homeless.

In 1999, I finally got off the streets for the third and last time. I was able to get a job with Mental Health Association Oklahoma, helping other people who were going through what I had experienced. However, it wasn’t until 2003 when friends convinced me it was time to seek treatment for my out-of-control substance abuse problem. I had a moment of clarity which led to my eventual recovery. I finally made the choice between life and death.

I was in treatment two days later. I had to admit I had a problem. However, I also had to be honest about everything in my life, or I knew I would not make it.

I am proud to say that I have been sober now for eleven years. Today I am the Administrator of Permanent Supported & Transitional Housing for Mental Health Association Oklahoma. I oversee the housing programs for homeless people with mental illnesses, including the many veterans whom I consider to be my friends.

At my job I get to witness firsthand what happens when someone has their moment of clarity. Either they can stay on the streets, or they can take the key I offer them and open the door to a new apartment and a new life.

In my opinion, it is all about providing our clients housing first, then surrounding them with supportive people and services. It’s the right thing to do for these people; besides, it saves taxpayers’ money. In the long run, it is cheaper to provide people with a safe and affordable place to live, than it is to leave them on the streets where they may commit crimes to survive, become victims of crimes or suffer serious health consequences related to crime, addiction or exposure. Those who have served this country deserve better than a miserable life on the streets.

I always tell people that those of us working in these housing and recovery programs don’t give up on people. We give them second, third, fourth and fifth chances – whatever it takes to get that person back on the road to recovery. It is so much more than just getting people off the street and giving them a place to sleep – we help them change their lives and the lives of those who love them.

A few years ago, I was approached by Mental Health Association Oklahoma to participate in its BetterBox Project, a campaign to end homelessness. To help put a face on the homeless, I happily told my story on camera.

Since the BetterBox Project video was released online and via social media, I have heard from people at my church and even people from my high school. Dozens of people I hadn’t heard from in years have called me. All of them expressed shock that I had been living on the streets. They said things like “How did this happen?” and “I can’t believe this. You don’t look like someone who would ever be homeless.”

I always tell them, “I didn’t think I would ever be homeless either. But I was. It’s not anything I’m proud or ashamed of – homelessness can happen to anyone.”

To learn more about the BetterBox Project and watch Connally’s videos, go to betterboxproject.org. Visit http://mhaok.org to learn more about Mental Health Association Oklahoma.

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