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Support system lifts Army vet out of homelessness

Monday, December 16, 2013 | 6:00 a.m. CST; updated 10:26 a.m. CST, Tuesday, December 17, 2013
Since October, James Snorgrass, a disabled veteran, has been living in a house with seven other previously homeless veterans as part of the Veterans Affairs' Transitional Residence Program. He struggles to buy food and is worried that he will not be able to afford the extra costs of gas, electricity and higher rent once he leaves the program.

COLUMBIA — James Snorgrass stood at the corner of Worley Street and Pershing Road, waiting for the bus to arrive at 7:10 a.m. A knee-length parka was wrapped around his slender frame. An insulated hat covered his salt and pepper hair. 

“It’s a cold morning to be out here,” Snorgrass said, as he leaned out into the street looking for the bus. 

Snorgrass, an Army veteran, had caught the same bus every weekday for more than a month to get to Truman Veterans Hospital.

“This is my every day routine,” Snorgrass said. “Monday through Friday.”

In many ways, the veterans hospital has become the center of his life. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has provided him with medical care, counseling, classes on budgeting and an apartment to live in.

Before October, Snorgrass, 57, was homeless, living at the Salvation Army’s Harbor House on North Ann Street.

But in October, Snorgrass was accepted into a house operated under the Veterans Affairs’ Transitional Residence Program, where he lives with seven other previously homeless veterans. 

In total, Veterans Affairs has provided housing and subsidized rental opportunities to 126 veterans in Columbia. The housing is part of a larger push by Veterans Affairs to eliminate veteran homelessness in the United States by 2015. 

In 2013, Veterans Affairs increased funding for homeless-veterans programs by more than $80 million. The increased funding could soon provide rental subsidies for 13 more veterans in Columbia. 

The push to reduce homelessness has made an impact, according to an annual report by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The report showed that veteran homelessness has declined by an estimated 24 percent since 2009.

Snorgrass pays $300 a month to live at the house, and the residence program covers the cost of utilities. 

“It’s a good thing for vets getting back on their feet,” Snorgrass said. “If I wasn’t a vet, I don’t think I could deal with everything by myself.

“They pay the gas and lights. All you have to do is buy your food.”

But in less than a year, Snorgrass has to move out of the transitional housing and find his own apartment.

He worries that he won’t be able to afford food and the higher rent of other apartments in Columbia. 

“The first month will probably be a little touchy,” Snorgrass said. “It all depends if I’ll be able to get food stamps.

Snorgrass does not qualify for food stamps because of the housing and medical assistance he receives. 

“I’m just a little bit over qualifying for it,” Snorgrass said. “But they done told me, once I start paying for rent, lights, gas and water, it could drop me down so that I can get food stamps.”

Staying on point

The bus came to a stop. Snorgrass took off his thick winter gloves — donations along with his hat and coat — and handed the driver his ticket.  

As he stared out the window at the familiar scenery of the route, Snorgrass cupped his hands and pressed them against his graying mustache, trying to warm them with his breath. The bracelet on his wrist read, “Support Our Veterans.”

Snorgrass, who has suffered from depression and alcoholism, goes to the veterans hospital every weekday to take part in group counseling sessions. He began attending the sessions as part of his housing agreement with Veterans Affairs, but has continued to go even after completing the 21 required days. 

“It’s been a lifeline for him, said Joyce Foster, Snorgrass’ sister. 

“They told me, You know all your warning signs now,’ Snorgrass said. “You know what made you relapse. You really don’t have to come to that many classes. But I told them, I do want to come because it does keep me sharper, and if I see somebody struggling, I can help them out with that.

“I’m staying busy,” Snorgrass said. “If you sit around and you’re a recovering alcoholic or drug addict and you’re not actually being involved in something, you ain’t gonna make it.”

Living one day at a time

At Wabash Station, Snorgrass needed to transfer to another bus. But as he walked toward the bus at the other end of the parking lot, it pulled out.

Snorgrass chased after it, hands waving, only to realize that it was not the bus he needed. They tell me not to run, Snorgrass said, steam billowing from his mouth as he tried to catch his breath.  

Snorgrass suffers from a debilitating back injury that he has had four surgeries to try to correct. 

“I wish I could trade this old body in for a new one,” he said.

Snorgrass said he first injured his back in the Army, the result of unloading large rounds of ammunition from a truck at Fort Ord in California. While working as a manager at a fast-food restaurant, a tank of soda rolled off a truck and struck Snorgrass in the back, he said. 

The accident made it difficult for him to work, and led to the string of surgeries that has still left him with herniated disks in his lower back.  

For a while, Snorgass was able to work as a certified nursing assistant for a couple nursing homes, Foster said. But employers did not want to hire him, he said, because they saw his back injury as a liability. 

My brother has never been a person that was lazy and didnt want to work, Foster said. But there you are, stuck between a rock and a hard place.

Depressed with the state of his health and unable to find work, Snorgrass began drinking heavily. 

Foster said that alcohol abuse ran in the family. Snorgrass’ father and grandfather both battled alcoholism, she said. From my standpoint, I am lucky not to be in his shoes, she said, referring to the hereditary nature of the disease. 

Drinking habits that began when he was young followed him into adulthood. Snorgrass said he would drink heavily on weekends, but not during the week, when he had to work.

But when his back injury worsened, he began drinking every day. He stopped attending church and quit leading Sunday school.

“If I was in pain, I would self-medicate,” Snorgrass said, admitting that it really didn’t help.

“I was having a hard time paying bills,” he said. “I was getting behind in my rent and everything else, and when you get behind like that, it’s hard to get caught back up.

“I never was able to get caught back up.”

Snorgrass took care of his mother as she was dying from pancreatic cancer, and Foster said her death also played into her brothers depression.

“Im sure that impacted him emotionally,” Foster said. “Its something he talks about a lot.”

Snorgrass said he tried to quit drinking on several occasions, but would always relapse. “I would take off, get into a motel and just start drinking,” he said.

At times, Snorgrass became so depressed he considered taking his own life. 

 “I was beating myself up over it,” Snorgrass said. “I had to learn to quit beating myself over it and let go of the past, and just live one day at a time.

“I had to take a good look at myself, and see why every time I was getting ready to make it, something would happen,” he said. “I was scared to succeed. I didn’t think I was worthy enough to succeed.

“It was a hard lesson for me to learn, but I learnt it and I’m at peace with myself,” he said. 

A new outlook on life 

Snorgrass entered the lobby of the veterans hospital and took a seat below the large American flag draped above the waiting room.

Veterans of different ages and branches of the military moved about the hospital. Some took advantage of the freshly brewed coffee near the entrance. 

“I usually get here early to drink a cup of coffee and relax,” Snorgrass said. 

There are many veterans who need help. Many of the people who lived at the Salvation Army were veterans, Snorgrass said. 

“It’s getting scary, because people depend on the pantries and places that can help them with food and stuff,” he said. “And right now, people are struggling with jobs. So the ones who used to have these jobs that donated, they’re finding themselves having to go there. It’s pretty rough.”

The help Snorgrass has received through Veterans Affairs has given him a new outlook on life. “Im not looking back, he said. 

“He looks very healthy and motivated,” Foster said. “He’s making better choices. I recognize that my brother has had issues,” she said. “But that has never affected my love for him.”

“I’m gonna be all right on my own,” Snorgrass said. “Everything I done learned and know how to do now, I know I’ll be all right.”

Supervising editor is John Schneller.


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