Coming Home: Grateful for a Second Chance

tom_and_randyIn May of 1986, Randy’s car hit a tractor-trailer that had jack-knifed in the road and was stretched across both lanes of traffic.

“I should have died,” Randy explained.

Rescuers had to cut the top of his car off to pull him out. His leg was shattered.

It was his third DUI.

“I showed up to court in October with my leg still in a cast. But I did get to dry out at the hospital. I went through two weeks of withdrawal pains. The doctor offered me medication, but I said no. I needed the pain to remind me why I had to quit drinking.”

“The judge was lenient on me,” Randy said.

He was sentenced to 90 days in prison, the minimum sentence.

Randy, who has been homeless off and on for over twenty years, started drinking in the Army when he was stationed in West Germany after attaining the rank of Sergeant (E-5) and being promoted to Crew Leader of a team of indirect-fire infantrymen.

“It was a very stressful job,” he said. “Instead of turning to God, I turned to the bottle.”

After serving in the Army for five and a half years, he tried to adjust to civilian life in 1983, as an active alcoholic, and he struggled with alcoholism until the accident three years later.

“I knew I had a problem, but I was afraid to change. I didn’t know how to change,” he said.

After his accident and his time in prison, he came out with the attitude that he was done drinking, and he had only one relapse after that on Father’s Day 1987. On his way home that night, driving on winding, dirt roads, he nearly drove over a hillside.

“That night scared me sober,” he explained. “I couldn’t sleep for two days.”

He has been sober ever since. That was 31 years ago.

For the past six months, Randy lived in a tent in the woods near the Taylorstown exit off I-70.

“My friend bought me a red and white tent,” Randy said. “I told him I was going to stick out like a sore thumb.”

To hide his tent so no one knew he lived there, he found some natural camouflage between a walnut tree and a sycamore.

“It was home,” he said. “It kept me warm and dry.”

He had a bucket to collect the cleanest water he could find from a nearby creek to bathe in. Then, he would head off to work as a driver for a local auto auction, where he worked for three years.

A few weeks ago, right around the time he lost that job, Randy saw a story in the newspaper about Steven Adams, the new manager of Veterans Services at City Mission.

“This is my biggest chance to get help,” he told himself. “City Mission is paying attention to veterans. If I have any chance at all, this is it.”

Randy showed up at City Mission, and presented his discharge paperwork, which, along with letters of commendation and certificates from the Army, he had kept through 20 years of intermittent homelessness — a testament to how much his service meant to him.

“My service to my country and my time as a volunteer firefighter are the things I’m most proud of in my life,” he said. “I was born with a desire to help people.”

When Adams heard that Randy was a veteran, he pulled him out of the men’s shelter and into the Patriot House, City Mission’s newly-constructed residence for homeless veterans.

Randy-and-Adam-2“My job is to fish veterans out of the intake process and get them hooked up with the services they need,” Adams said. “We got Randy a bed that night, and we’re getting ready to set him up with the VA in Pittsburgh.”

“The Patriot House is the best place there could be,” Randy said after a week in his new home. “If you’re really looking for help, you can find it here. I’m grateful to God for giving me a second chance at life. This is an answer to prayer.”

Randy has an Associates Degree in Construction Technology from Triangle Tech and has held an impressive variety of jobs: a security guard, a maintenance manager, a garbage truck driver, a delivery man, a machine operator, and an electrical conduit bender.

“All my life, I could never get the support I needed. I’d get a job, but it was never enough. There were lots of times I was homeless while I was working. I tried to be as frugal as I could, but I could never save any money. I used it all to live on.”

After Randy’s first few days at the Patriot House, Adams drove him back to his campsite to clean it up and salvage what they could.

“On the way back,” Adams said, “I asked Randy how he felt to be heading to City Mission after we just ripped down his house. He told me, ‘I feel like I’m going home.’”