In life we search,and some of us find
Tom Dingman sang the words of an old George Jones song, `Walk through this world with me,` at the dinner table for a small group of guests on Friday evening, March 27, while two of his housemates scraped dishes in the kitchen. Another two were on the front porch, enjoying an after-dinner cigarette.
All are veterans. All were previously homeless. Most are in recovery for drugs, alcohol or both. All agree the Saratoga County Rural Preservation Company, an organization that operates a transitional facility for homeless veterans, has changed their lives significantly.
`They get you back on your feet,` said Brian Case, a 63-year-old Air Force veteran of the Vietnam War. Case, originally from Syracuse, said he was a `functioning alcoholic` when he left the military, and he was homeless by the time he was 40. Case, who said he doesn’t blame his alcoholism on the military, finally found himself in a rehab in Amsterdam, where he was recommended to the RPC.
`The people here,` he said of the staff and his fellow veterans, `they know the ropes. They can get you hooked up with programs at the VA hospital, work. It’s a self-help program here, but they do what they can to help you out. I know they have changed my life.`
The National Coalition for Homeless Veterans estimates that 23 percent of all homeless Americans are veterans. It is estimated that there are more than 20,000 homeless veterans in New York state.
The RPC, a nonprofit organization established in 1983, also runs a 12-unit rental facility in Wilton that rents exclusively to veterans and a two-family home in Ballston Spa for disabled veterans.
Residents of the `vet house,` as its residents and staff call it, each pay $250 per month in addition to contributing for food. During the day, the men either work at their respective jobs or are transported to the Albany Stratton VA Hospital for medical treatment or rehabilitation programs.
Back at the house, they’re assigned chores and share an evening meal at the vet house’s large dinner table.
St. Mary’s Church in Crescent supplied dinner on this particular Friday evening. Mary Moss, who co-chaired the event, said her church does two to three community projects a month, but the dinner on March 27 was the first it had done for the vet house.
`We’d definitely like to do it again,` said Moss. `The men are very hospitable.`
Moss said more awareness should be brought to the plight of homeless veterans and the resources that are out there for their support. `They’re kind of this forgotten crew,` she said of the men of the vet house. `And this facility is great because the men can understand each other’s troubles and help each other with them. It was gratifying that we could go there and help brighten their day.`
The Saratoga RPC, located at 36 Church Ave. in Ballston Spa, houses 10 veterans, but its services are not limited to veterans who reside in the shelter. `We offer employment and housing services among others,` said Don Little, director of veterans’ affairs for the RPC. `And we have a knowledgeable staff that can guide a veteran on his way to help.`
Dingman, a 55-year-old Navy and Army veteran of Vietnam who has resided at the RPC since October, said he certainly needed guidance. A musician and songwriter who has done some studio recording, Dingman was married for 25 years before he and his wife separated in May. He said drugs, alcohol and an increasing desire to withdraw from his family led to the separation.
He said sharing a house with nine other people has been a challenge, but the camaraderie and teamwork they carried over from their military experience has helped tremendously.
`When one of us falls, we pick him back up, dust him off and put him back on top again.`
Getting back on top for Dingman, he said, would be recording again, or at least writing songs for another musician. A sample of the music he played at the vet house on March 27 is available at www.spotlightnews.com, and he is playing at the Saratoga-Wilton Elks lodge on Friday, June 5.
`I offered my time there because they’ve been so good to us,` Dingman said. `The vet house eats there probably two or three times a month.`
Dingman said the time he’s spent at the RPC has been invaluable for him and for all of those who have walked through its doors. `It’s made a difference in all of our lives, really. It gets us to try and get ourselves back into society as productive individuals,` he said. `I couldn’t be in a better place. This is where God has put me.`
If you know or are a homeless veteran, or would like to support the Saratoga RPC, call 885-0091, e-mail [email protected] or visit www.vethome.org.“