Prince William News
"Most people in the community are only three paychecks away from being homeless.”
Haymarket resident pitches in to fight homelessness
© Gainesville TimesThis is the first in a multi-part, occasional series about the homeless in Prince William County.
"It is more than a trial by fire. It is a rite of passage, a challenge to join the elite. And if you succeed, if you can master your fear, outsmart your enemy and never yield even to yourself, you will be changed forever."
A television commercial from the United States Marine Corps once showed a young man battling through a Matrix-like obstacle course set in the midst of a science fiction horror setting.
Once the man clad in only a gray T-shirt, black pants and shoes takes an Excalibur-like pull of a sword and slashes a fire-and-brimstone beast, he transforms from a regular Joe into the typical image of a uniformed Marine at perfect attention.
Physical strength meets mental toughness. It's hard to miss the point of the ad.
What is easy to miss though is what happens to that same man at age 60 after he loses his job and is evicted from his house.
Is the hulking hero due to live in a tent in the woods next to the Wal-Mart off of Liberia Avenue in Manassas?
Perhaps he's taking cover under the trees in Woodbridge from a spray of gun fire as bullets whizz toward him through the leaves for no apparent reason.
Two Prince William County veterans lived that reality, right here at home.
In fact, similar circumstances are not that uncommon in this area, not just urban settings where the stereotype of a homeless vet thrives.
Haymarket resident Casey Downer is all too well-aware of this reality.
She was homeless once too.
“No one knows that there (are) homeless people here in western Prince William and Haymarket,” said Downer on Sunday afternoon, standing inside of Park Valley Church.
A posting on the church website states, "According to the 2011 Count of Homeless Persons, Prince William County’s homeless population increased by 38% over the 2010 count."
Instead of accepting this as "normal", Downer did something to addressing homelessness, helping turn hopeless situations into something more tenable, something more humane, and something more human.
She runs a non-profit, Christian ministry-based group called Calling All Souls, which collects donations at a storage facility in Manassas and delivers basic supplies home furnishings to the homeless as they transition to living in permanent housing.
“It’s grown so much, I’m short on beds right now,” said Downer.
The group that she runs as a member of a board of directors with her husband and six others also includes a mobile food pantry and a constant need for volunteers.
Since its 2011 debut, formal fundraising still has yet to start. Downer, a stay-at-home mom, pays for gas to make truck runs out of her own pocket.
"I think she's a very great, devoted, religious woman," said Barry Hatchett, a Vietnam veteran living at a senior apartment complex near the intersection of Minnieville Road and the Prince William County Parkway in Woodbridge.
Hatchett and fellow USMC veteran Mike B. shared their stories on Dec. 2 about how they transitioned from homeless life in the woods to living in their own, completely furnished apartments with the help of Calling All Souls.
That group wasn't alone, of course. SERVE, the Manassas-based shelter run by Northern Virginia Family Service, locates the homeless and refers many of them to Downer once they figure out how she can best help.
Calling All Souls, a 501 (c)3 group, takes referrals from other shelters and groups too, depending on the need.
In the case of Barry and Mike, federal housing grants stemming from their military service played a role in bringing them permanent shelter too.
What Downer did was essentially turn their houses into homes by delivering truckloads of items.
"Before Casey, I had an air mattress and a beat up" green chair, said Mike.
The two veterans relayed their stories while sitting on a gray, padded futon supplied by Downer.
Positioned against the wall at Hatchett's place, it's just a leg's length away from the couch Downer and others delivered to him, free of charge.
To the right of the futon is the table she brought over. It's not too far from the two pots and two pants on the four stove burners.
Those came from her too.
Oh, and the bed Hatchett sleeps on each night.
And his shiny and slick black dress shoes, the ones with the crumpled up, glossy paper ads tucked inside toward the toe so the top doesn't lose its shape.
"I appreciate all the help and everything," said Hatchett, the lines on his face sinking his 61 years much more aggressively than Mike's 62 years hidden behind a dusty beard. "It'll never be forgotten."
"I'm real proud of her."
Less anyone dismiss the significance of donated items, the people assisted by Downer often have literally nothing more than the clothes on their backs.
Barry had just a pad to sleep on.
“It’s the difference between greeting someone at the door to talk to them and inviting them into your apartment,” said Mike.
Where we come from
The backgrounds of Mike and Barry are plenty diverse but with some similarities.
While both served in the United States Marine Corps, the military stationed Barry in Vietnam as a Private First Class from 1969 to 1972.
Mike served as a sergeant right afterward, not having to deploy into the war-torn country.
Barry, a statewide amateur boxing champion in 1968, lived the hard life when he returned from the war.
Never married, he drifted throughout the country. He landed odd carpentry-style jobs in California, Florida, Nevada and back home in his native Virginia.
Over the years, he developed a disability in his knee and a 40-year-long bout with alcoholism.
"It makes my head feel good but it doesn't make my body feel good," he reckoned.
For Mike, a stroke 3.5 years ago while he was the lead plumber at a local Lowe's began a series of unfortunate events.
He claimed that, while living in a house with a couple of guys, he managed to pay his rent but when his landlord didn't pay the mortgage in turn, he and the other tenants ended up evicted.
"Most people in the community are only three paychecks away from being homeless," cautioned Mike.
While some homeless folks are drug addicts, alcoholics or mentally impaired, Mike fell into the category of simply falling on hard times that left him penniless.
That led him to spend the better part of two years living in shelters and a tent throughout the eastern part of the county.
When asked what frightened him the most about living alone in the woods, he said a random car pulled nearby once and someone began shooting a gun in his direction.
He could hear the bullets zap through the leaves overhead.
Another time, a man who turned out to be schizophrenic set himself up in Mike's tent and threatened him with violence.
That lasted until August 2011, when through the help of local volunteers and others, his veteran status landed him into a Woodbridge apartment.
That’s where Downer came in.
What it’s like
“I'm kind of like the face of Calling All Souls. I'm not scared to go out to the bad parts of Woodbridge and Dale City.”
At 29, Downer is a married mother of three. Her husband, Doug, is a business owner.
Their youngest sons are aged 3.5 and 1.5 years.
Her oldest is 13.
It doesn't take a degree in quantum physics to figure out that means she was once a teenage mom.
At 15, she gave birth to a premature baby, long before she ever met Doug.
Battled as she could to stay in school, stressing through a traumatic home life, and a partial paralysis in 2004 from a fall off of a horse left her unable to take care of herself or her son.
"I was suicidal. I wanted to take my life when I first broke my back," said Downer.
Through it all, she moved between Charlottesville, Richmond and Northern Virginia at various points, ending up living out of her car at one point.
In Charlottesville, however, an old couple as she described them took her "under their wing" and taught her about the Bible.
"That's how I can relate to helping these folks. I know what it's like to not have anything and be evicted… and not have one thing to your name," she said.
The next installment of the series will examine how a single mother in Stafford went from homelessness to studying to become a nurse, what is behind the ministry side of Calling All Souls, and more stories from the Downers and veterans.