Marine vet beats alcohol and cancer

Homeless. Veteran. These two words don’t belong together. How could someone who is willing to die for our country wind up on the streets, kicked to the curb after their service?

How many homeless veterans are in Alabama? I want to draw them all – or as many as possible - and let them tell their stories.

According to an AL.com report in 2018 citing the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development study, there were 339 homeless veterans in Alabama. Of those, 52 were in the Mobile area. So, it makes sense to start locally.

Those numbers are in flux, of course. Thanks to organizations like Housing First, since last July 151 homeless veterans in the Mobile and Eastern Shore area have been identified and transitioned into apartments.

To kick off this project, we talked with four of these Housing First veterans. We hope their stories will inspire more homeless and formerly homeless veterans to come forward with their stories. (See the video in the story below.)

In the meantime, I’m gonna be searching, listening, learning and sketching.

Howard Ellis, Jr

• Born February 3, 1961

• U.S. Marine Corps, 1984.

• Served 3 ½ years in the Philippines.

Howard tells his story:

“I finally got sick and tired of it.”

“I served in the United States Marine Corps, my duty station basically the whole 3 ½ years I was there was Subic Bay in the Philippines. I was there when they were taking Marcos out and the guerrillas were very upset and wreaking havoc. We were called in to go through the jungle and eliminate the problem. It was scary - an experience I wouldn’t recommend to anybody. But it helped me to relate to other people.

“When I got out of the military, I had a drinking problem. I couldn’t hold a job because of that, which contributed to my homelessness.”

In the fall of 2010, Ellis was arrested for panhandling with a cardboard sign on the side of the highway. He told the officers he had been drinking and he was booked into jail. By 2011 he was ready to change his life.

“I finally got sick and tired of it. I went to the Salvation Army and went through their rehabilitation program. I spent a year and a half there. It’s only a six-month program, but they asked me to stay on - because of my previous condition - I could spot people coming in that were under the influence.”

While there, his counselor told him of a new transitional housing project for veterans via Volunteers of America. He was one of the first to land in one of the Eagle’s Landing units. “It was a drug and alcohol-free community, and they helped me with AA meetings. They helped me get control of my life. My church was a big bonus, too."

Things were looking up for Ellis – he was sober, had a place to live and a job in the restaurant at the Renaissance hotel. On his birthday, he went to a dentist who offered to brighten his smile, pro bono. X-rays revealed bad news: Cancer in his jaw.

After two surgeries and five years, Ellis is “still crankin’.”

“It’s a godsend. Housing First has got me on the road where I don’t have to worry about anything. With them taking care of the full rent and letting me take my check and put my money back so I can have a checking account … I’m in a position now where I can handle it.”

Ellis likes to stay busy, and he can do about any kind of work. He’s a good cook, and he helps his church and neighborhood friends with handyman and construction jobs.

I talked to Howard just before posting this story and he had some good news: He now has a job with Goodwill Easter Seals.

If you have a possible opportunity for Howard Ellis, call Housing First (Mobile) @ 251-303-8058 and ask for his case worker.

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