Richard Hobbs, a Marine who served in Vietnam, was living in a refrigerator box under a Pittsburgh bridge last year.
“I got some big mats to put down and I had a sleeping bag,” he said. “When it got cold I didn’t have any place to go. For about two to three months I lived in that box. My fingers were getting purple and I couldn’t feel my feet.”
Hobbs was one of the hundreds of homeless veterans in the region, but as of seven months ago, he no longer contributes to those statistics. He’s been living in the Washington City Mission’s Crabtree Kovacicek Veterans House, which opened last year.
“This is like heaven to be here,” Hobbs said in an interview this week. “I thought God gave up on me, but this helped me turn my life around. It changed how I feel about people.”
Hobbs’ story is one of many stories that have added to the success of the Crabtree Kovacicek house, which celebrated its first anniversary July 3. The house was started to not only provide a roof over the heads of local homeless veterans, but to help them get the healthcare they need, employment and eventually get them back on their feet.
“It’s one of the greatest things to see a guy come in broken, and one day has a job and is ready to get his own place,” said Steve Adams, manager of veteran services for the City Mission.
Adams, the facilitator of the house, said they have 20 residents right now, with a capacity for 22. In the first year, they’ve had 13 veterans leave the house with successful housing, and 10 who stayed there temporarily before going into other medical programs with longer-term care to better fit their needs.
He said there’s a lengthy “list of positives” that have come from the establishment of the house.
“They never gave me an expectation, but we had thought it would take about two years to reach capacity,” Adams said. “Seven months after we opened I was at capacity. It’s only going to get better and stronger.”
Adams, of North Franklin Township, is a U.S. Army veteran who was deployed in Desert Storm in 1990.
“I saw a great many terrible things,” he said.
He left the military in 1993, but suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder along with substance abuse issues.
“The military is like this big machine that’s larger than life,” Adams said. “When you’re in it, you’re young and strong and a person of importance. When you leave, you become just another citizen, and you don’t have the brotherhood around you anymore.”
In 1996, he came to the City Mission as a homeless man.
“The Mission saved my life,” he said.
Now, more than 20 years later, he’s giving back to the Mission by running the Veterans House, and playing a big role in the lives of other veterans.
“I love going to that house every day,” Adams said. “I love the fact that they trust me enough to share their lives with me.”
Adams said the house thrives on the camaraderie of its residents, the service they have in common and a “no man left behind” motto. He said it’s more than just a roof over their heads.
While at the house, Adams helps the veterans get connected with any Veterans Affairs benefits they may qualify for, such as health care, or connect them with welfare services. Then they find them a doctor and have a physical done.
“Most of the guys have a wide variety of issues,” he said.
Some of the most common issues are medical problems, he said, along with PTSD, survivor’s remorse and depression.
“You put a couple of those together and you’ve got the perfect storm for a guy to lose everything,” Adams said.
Hobbs’ greatest hurdle was a variety of medical issues, such as diabetes and high blood pressure. When he left the military in 1975, he worked at a steel mill in Pittsburgh. Back then, he had a family and a house, before the mill shut down in 1984. He had trouble finding stable work after that and ultimately became homeless.
“I stayed with Christianity and religion, I just didn’t have a place to stay,” Hobbs said. “Any place I could find with warmth I would stay.”
He was met with warmth at the Mission.
“They care about veterans,” Hobbs said. “I was called a baby killer, but when I got here, I was treated with love and respect. All I saw was negativity until I came here.”
Adams said he worked with Hobbs on getting his health back on track, managing his diabetic symptoms and helping him lose weight.
“All the guys rallied around him and wanted to help him and look out for him,” Adams said.
Hobbs plans to be at the Veterans House for two years, before getting his own place in Washington.
“It’s not a hand out, it’s a hand up,” Hobbs said.
He’s going back to school for an associate’s degree because he wants to be a child guidance counselor. He’ll be celebrating his 67th birthday July 19.
“I got a second chance, and I thank God for that,” he said.
But there are hundreds more like Hobbs that could use a second chance.
“There’s a lot more need than people realize,” Adams said. “I don’t think anyone really pays attention to the guy on the corner with a homeless veteran sign.”
Adams said one of their former residents had been living in a tent in the woods for years before he came to the Crabtree Kovacicek Veterans House.
“They can come to this place and whatever issues or failures they’re bringing with them, they can overcome,” Adams said. “We build on successes.”