If you had asked Mike a few years ago where he would be today, he never would have guessed.
From living with his wife in Virginia, spending time with his seven kids and 14 grandchildren, working for the local electric company maintaining and repairing powerlines, to sitting alone in a wheelchair on Nicollet Mall, holding a sign that reads “Homeless Veteran, Anything Helps,” and hoping to make it another day.
A series of unfortunate events left him out in the cold and with no connection to his former life, except for a stray phone call now again from his youngest son.
“I’m not real proud to have to do this,” he says. “Sometimes it’s hard for me to look someone in the eye… You have to do what you have to do, but I’m not gonna beg. I don’t want to give anyone reason to call me a bum.”
In 1973, Mike joined the Army at age 18, just as the Vietnam War was winding down. He served two tours as a communications specialist, working as a liaison between commanders and the soldiers out in the field.
“I still have lot of problems with it and a lot of problems talking about it, a lot of PTSD,” he says. “I’ll wake up in the middle of the night either hollering or screaming with the cold sweats.”
Despite the haunting visions, Mike was able to put together a life with his wife in northern Virginia. They had a home on 14 acres, raising seven kids. Mike repaired power lines and made a decent living.
But life as he knew it came to halt during an accident. He was driving a company truck outside Reston, Virginia just after lunch. “A lady t-boned me at 80-plus miles an hour in the middle of the day. It flipped ten times, crashed down on its roof, and busted the emergency lights off. It slid across four lanes of traffic, hit the curb, and almost flipped again.”
When the car came to a stop, Mike was able to grab the truck’s microphone and call in an emergency code.
“Someone ran up to me with a stethoscope around their neck and said, ‘Turn your truck off! Turn your truck off!’ because the engine was racing even though I was upside down.”
Mike was partially paralyzed. He’s moved with a wheelchair ever since.
“I just remember it over and over again.”
In 2003, they moved to Minneapolis, where his wife found work as a teacher. Mike began restoring antiques and collectables in his garage.
“That’s when I started drinking, maybe a six-pack a week. Then it started progressing. When you’re working on power lines, you don’t want to drink. A lot of the time it feels like that’s what calms me down. It’s actually the wrong thing to do.”
Drinking led to a separation from his wife in 2011.
“We used to be like two peas in a pod.”
Most of his family sided with his wife after the divorce, and she moved to North Carolina. After struggling to maintain a handle on his mental and physical limitations, Mike was left with no other option but to take to the streets.
The VA is working on finding housing for Mike, but he has already been denied twice due to his history of addiction. He recently completed two months in a rehab program at the St. Cloud VA and remains sober.
“We come out here when we need to and do what we can,” he says. “I don’t ask anyone for money, I just sit here with my sign. If somebody stops and gives me money, I thank them.”
Though thankful for the help he has received from a Catholic shelter, echoes of his former life make it difficult to accept life on the streets.
“I used to make big money, my wife made big money, so I’ve got … high-class taste buds,” he says. This doesn’t mesh with shelter food.
Mike tours new housing options almost every week in hopes of being accepted once he applies. Between low-income rent adjustments, Social Security, and his Army pension, he figures he can make the rent.
“You have to do what you have to do, but I’m not gonna let it get to me,” says Mike. “I’m not a bum.”
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