We met Joel at Hands and Feet Foundation in Jacksonville. They are one of the faith-based outreach programs helping the homeless. Tracy and I interviewed the couple who run this program and will be posting their interview on the blog soon.

Joel, age 67, is an army veteran who’s been battling homelessness on and off for years.  He says getting work after 40 years of age has been difficult. Joel is very thin in stature at only 125 lbs. One could even say, frail. His soft-spoken raspy voice rattles when he laughs. It’s not difficult to figure out he’s a smoker and has been for some time. I find myself leaning forward to hear him better. 

“People would rather just hire younger kids,” Joel says. His prior experience with the labor pool shows his motivation to work. The labor pool involves showing up at 4:30 AM and getting sent out wherever they need you. It could be ditch-digging, hammering, concrete work, or anything else. Joel would work a full day and end up with $30.00 for his efforts. This amount of money would buy him food, beer, and cigarettes, he says, as he lived in the woods and had no other bills.  

“I was cheap. I didn’t want to spend the money on a tent, so I bought an eight by ten-foot tarp at Walmart.”

He liked the freedom sometimes of being homeless but, after a long time, grew tired of it. Joel says he never begged anyone for money. “How am I going to ask you for money that you worked for?”

He enlisted in the army when he was around 20 years old and served for 11 years, eventually becoming a medic. Mostly, he says, he liked it and learned a lot of useful skills. Camping out never bothered him, he says. 

Joel was married once in 1999 and is divorced. He spent his childhood in an orphanage in Clinton, SC, from the ages of 5-19. He talks about it very matter of factly without much tension in his voice as he recalls it as somewhat routine. 

“You were taught how to work. From 10 years old, you had a job.” 

There were always other kids to play with, Joel recalls. He was a good student and had the grades to continue to college, but didn’t pursue it. He left the orphanage in 1972. 

Regarding his biological parents, Joel says he never knew who they were, just that he and his twin brother were the youngest of 7 boys, as 4 of his brothers were in the same orphanage with him. According to Joel, his mother died when he was three years old. His grandmother and Joel had a close relationship. 

When he was 21, he did find out he had a half-sister that his grandmother raised. What Joel knows of his mother is that she wasn’t married to the father of his half-sister. In the 1950s, the stigma of an out-of-wedlock child proved too much, so she gave her up for adoption. Joel says he heard his father was an alcoholic who his mother eventually kicked out of the house. The only living relative Joel has a relationship with today is his fraternal twin brother. He lost track of other kids that were in the orphanage with him once he joined the army. 

“The army is a way of life. I made some bad choices.”

He and one of his older brothers started a framing company that was successful for a while until his two older brothers got into dealing drugs. His brothers began making ice (crystal methamphetamine). Drugs were never really an issue for him other than smoking pot now and then while in military prison. His brothers’ choices didn’t sit well with him, so he gave them his tools to pay off a job and parted ways.

Alcohol was, however, a problem at one time. Joel recalls waking up one Sunday morning in his truck outside of a bar with 4-5 bottles of Wild Turkey on the floor. 

“Who likes a crying, whiny drunk?” Joel said. 

He knew he had to make a change when he only remembered going to that bar on Friday and then woke up Sunday with no recollection of the entire weekend. 

The program, Changing Homelessness got him set up in an apartment that he says was not in a safe area. They paid his deposit and rent for 4-5 months afterward until Joel eventually took over.  There were five shootings the first month he lived there. Finally, with the help of the Veterans’ Administration and Jacksonville Housing Authority, Joel could rent his house in Tampico, Florida. He’s able to live off of his VA and Social Security checks he receives each month and is content to live within his means, he says.

“If you want help, it’s there. You have to want it and put forth the effort.”

We talked a little bit about the shelters and other services that are available for the homeless. Joel recommends Sulzbacher with their programs that help people get on theirfeet besides just giving them a place to stay for a night. Like we’ve heard in our other interviews, Joel cites the problem of having to get in line at the shelter around 1-2:00 PM to get a bed for that night. 

“This promotes homelessness. There are homeless people out there who do want to work.”

We end our conversation as Joel seems well settled in and willing to chat a while longer. He seems content with the life he is living now and hopes others will reach out for the assistance he says is there.