For about a month in the autumn of 2016, the only roof over Army veteran Earl Suggs’ head was the top of his 1993 Honda Accord.
Suggs had moved to Douglas County from Portland the first part of September that year. He had lived here before, but with no job and no apartment he spent his first few weeks couch surfing between the homes of his brother, his sister and a friend. Sometimes that was OK, and sometimes it wasn’t, he said. At his brother’s home, for example, he laid awake at night tossing and turning on a small uncomfortable sofa in the living room.
It was almost October when he gave up on the couches and began sleeping in his car instead.
Today, Suggs has a home, thanks largely to the intervention of Tonya Hall, a social worker with the Roseburg Veterans Affairs Medical Center’s Health Care for Homeless Veterans Office.
According to the most recent statistics available from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, there were 37,800 homeless veterans in America on a given night in January 2018. Of those, about 23,300 were on the street and the rest in emergency shelters and transitional housing. Those numbers, while high, represent a dramatic decrease from 2010, when HUD reported there were 74,000 homeless veterans across the country.
On a Tuesday afternoon in February, three homeless men sat with veteran advocates Vern Jorgensen and Tonya Hall in a spare room on the third f…
That’s due in part to a strong push by the VA to reduce homelessness among veterans over the past decade. Suggs had been living in his own apartment for a year by the time that January 2018 count was taken. He’s one of the VA’s success stories.
Back in the fall of 2016, though, Suggs’ future was looking pretty bleak. Once he moved into his car, Suggs parked behind Ben Irving Reservoir outside of Tenmile, near where his sister lived. Couch surfing had been difficult, but this was worse. It was very dark at night, and increasingly cold.
“I lived in my car out there for at least a month. The mind really starts to work when you’re sitting in a car and the only thing you’ve got is a flashlight for light, and it’s pitch dark and the batteries are going dead,” he said.
Suggs said he received gas money from his relatives, but he couldn’t use it to warm up the car at night.
“You couldn’t sit there and run your gas all out because then you wouldn’t be able to go into town the next day. So it was dress warm and hunker down,” he said.
For food, he would either go to a friend’s house during the day or use food stamps to buy what he called picnic stuff.
“I always had food in my car. Just stuff that would keep, and I had an ice chest so I could take bologna and mayonnaise with me. But most everything else was out of a can, crackers, bread, you know. And fresh water. The basic necessities of life, and that was pretty much it,” he said.
The year before, he’d been living with a different relative in Portland. But Suggs said there was a lot of drinking in the home and he didn’t like being around it.
Before moving to Portland, Suggs had worked a variety of jobs in Douglas County. He had spent some time as a custodian for Roseburg High School, worked at a grocery store and a restaurant, and drove for Sunshine Taxi for seven years. Then he had contracted prostate cancer and it moved him to reconnect with relatives he hadn’t seen in a while. He moved to Portland to be near them, but when his living situation got worse, he decided to return home to Douglas County.
He was 61, with no money and no job. Couch surfing and living in the car both seemed preferable to sleeping at the Roseburg Rescue Mission, he said. He worried he’d be bullied at the shelter.
“When you’re dealing with the homeless, you don’t know what somebody’s got. You don’t know what kind of mental condition they’re in,” Suggs said.
After he moved into his car, the air grew chillier and chillier until one cold night in October his sister knocked on his car window.
“Alright follow me home. You can’t stay out here anymore,” she told him.
So it was back to the couch, but now he was sharing the living room with his sister’s mother-in-law, who was dying and slept in a hospital bed. That was pretty rough, too.
Ultimately, it was his stint in the military that saved Suggs. He had served in Germany during the Vietnam War Era, assigned to patrol the wall that at that time divided East and West Berlin. While it wasn’t combat experience, it was enough to qualify him for housing assistance through the HUD-VASH program, which helps veterans obtain Section 8 housing. Hall, the VA social worker, helped Suggs find a home in January 2017.
The man who introduced himself as Elliot Ness sat on a bench in front of Roseburg City Hall …
Suggs has lived at the Rose Villa apartment complex for more than two years now. He said Hall was a bit worried about the place’s reputation at first, but he is thrilled. He said it’s recently been painted, and cameras have been installed. The apartment is small, but there’s a common area where he enjoys spending time, and where he said he sometimes hears live music from other tenants in the apartment complex. Most of all, he was thrilled to have a real roof over his head.
“I was probably the most grateful person in this town,” he said.