The line between despair and hope can be strikingly thin. In Leo Morse’s case, it wasn’t much thicker than a bare mattress on the carpeted floor of a warm room he could call his own. Morse, an ex-Marine who’s been in and out of homeless shelters for decades, lives in Maine’s only housing for homeless veterans. A second home in Biddeford is expected to open soon.
The walls of Morse’s small bedroom, inside a Waterville house he shares with three other men, are almost bare. On top of his refrigerator sits an array of bottles holding pills that have failed to stop the intense nightmares he’s experienced since returning from Vietnam more than 30 years ago.
But Morse beamed with gratitude Thursday as he welcomed visitors into his home. He showed off his stereo and a new set of tools that have allowed him to rediscover his carpentry skills. He’s working to stay sober, visiting Alcoholics Anonymous four times a day.
“I’ve been battling alcoholism for 36 years, and this is the best opportunity I’ve ever had,” Morse said. “It’s an honor to be here. It is. It’s a privilege and an honor.”
Like other homeless people, homeless vets are often coping with substance abuse and mental illness. On top of that, many are living with the trauma of having watched men die on the battlefield. Until they have roofs over their heads, it’s hard to confront their other problems.
“By giving people a stable place to live, it stops patterns of crisis,” said Cullen Ryan, executive director of Community Housing of Maine, which developed the Waterville home. “It really allows this sense of ‘I’ve got a place that is mine.’ “
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that 190,000 American military veterans are homeless at any time. That figure has dropped significantly in recent years, but it could increase again as more soldiers experience the aftereffects of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“That’s a concern for us. It should be a concern for everyone,” said John Driscoll, spokesman for the National Coalition of Homeless Veterans in Washington, D.C.
Until Thanksgiving 2004, when the Waterville home opened, there wasn’t a single bed in Maine designated specifically for homeless veterans. Progress has come in small steps.
There’s room in Waterville for up to five people who must pledge to stay sober and can stay indefinitely. The Veterans Career House on West Street in a rural part of Biddeford will hold up to eight veterans who stay off drugs and alcohol.
The Biddeford property was purchased and rehabilitated for about $400,000 using funds from the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Maine State Housing Authority. Backers say this type of housing is cost-effective because it reduces the strain that chronically homeless people put on shelters and emergency services.
Residents will only be allowed to stay at the Biddeford house for two years. The goal is to help them find good jobs in the 24 months they have a stable residence so that afterwards they can live independently.
But advocates note that some homeless vets are unlikely to earn a livable wage even under the best circumstances.
Morse said he’s been deemed unemployable in part because of a head trauma he suffered more than a year ago in an attack at a Tewksbury, Mass., motel.
When he checked into the motel, he had just sold a motorcycle for $5,000 and was carrying a wad of $100 bills. Later, someone attacked him with a 4-foot pipe, robbing him and causing injuries that led to multiple surgeries.
Morse said he subsequently spent four months living at a crowded Boston shelter where fights were frequent. At one point he was so depressed that he put a gun in his mouth.
The turnaround began when Morse moved onto a quiet block of Pleasant Street in Waterville.
“Since I’ve moved in here, my feet are grounded,” he explained.
Morse has found it helpful to be living with other veterans who are experiencing similar struggles. He’s comforted by a roommate who witnessed death in Somalia and another man who was having a hard time coping with the loss of his sister.
The four men who live here have become part of their community, even chipping in to mow neighbors’ lawns, said Ryan of Community Housing of Maine.
That’s not to say the setup, which includes regular visits by a social worker, has worked for everyone. One resident relapsed and moved out. “People don’t always get well right away,” Ryan said.
But Morse has found hope in the routine of daily life. He’s become a leader, installing fire extinguishers and helping with maintenance around the house. This spring he’s looking forward to building a motorcycle.
Morse said he was among the last soldiers to leave Vietnam in 1975. He’s proud of his military service – he wears a Marines cap and displays a poster for National POW/MIA Recognition Day – but he’s also deeply scarred.
“I still have nightmares – wicked, wicked, wicked bad nightmares. And the V.A. gives me all kinds of pills to forget. And you know what? That’s not the way to deal with it,” Morse said.
“If you’re willing to sacrifice your life for the country, I think you should get a little compensation, especially if you’re homeless.”
Staff Writer Kevin Wack can be contacted at 282-8226 or at: