Friday, December 6, 2013
By CRAIG CROSBY Kennebec Journal
TOGUS - A few years ago, Mark Seger was living what he describes as an upper-middle-class lifestyle. He had a family, a job and even a little money in the bank.
David Lehoux talks to Beverly Robbins of Preble Street Resource Center about transitional housing during the annual Maine Homeless Veterans Stand Down on Saturday at the VA Healthcare Systems Maine Medical Center – Togus.
Photos by Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal
Mark Seger of Winthrop, who served 18 years in the Army and Navy, volunteers during the stand down. After Seger lost his job, his savings and his home in 2010, “the VA got me back on my feet,” he said.
That all changed in 2010, when Seger's marriage ended in divorce, the company where he worked was sold and closed, and the trailer he shared with his 14-year-old daughter burned to the ground. In a matter of months, Seger had burned through his savings. He and his daughter moved into a tent.
"I started spiraling down," Seger said.
Seger and his daughter have had a home for the past two years, thanks to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, which has stepped up efforts over that time to find housing for homeless veterans. Part of that effort, the annual Maine Homeless Veterans Stand Down, was held Saturday at the VA Healthcare Systems Maine Medical Center -- Togus.
The name of the event is based on a military term meaning a stop in action, used to signal a time when soldiers could stop fighting and relax.
Stand downs across the country offer a wide range of services for the nation's homeless veterans, including medical care and supplies, such as clothing and footwear. Veterans also are provided with information on housing, medical and other benefits for which they qualify.
This year's stand down, the 15th held at Togus, attracted more than 90 homeless veterans from across the state.
"They'll find the resources they might not know they're eligible for," Seger said.
Seger, 55, of Winthrop, spent a total of 18 years serving in the Navy and Army before building a successful civilian life. He never had reason to find out about his VA benefits until facing financial calamity.
Then Seger began to think about being two years shy of 20 years' service, which would have entitled him to a retirement with full benefits.
"Because I didn't do my 20 years, I didn't think I was eligible for benefits," Seger said.
He visited Kennebec Valley Community Action Program for help in finding a place to live.
"She asked me if I was a vet," Seger recalled. "I said 'yes,' and she brought me to Togus."
There, Seger was introduced to the supportive housing program, a collaboration between the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the VA, which expedites the process of placing homeless veterans and their families in suitable housing.
According to the VA, there were 132,000 homeless veterans in the country in 2009, which marked the beginning of a five-year plan to end homelessness among veterans. The number of homeless vets had declined to 76,600 by June 2011, according to officials.
"The VA got me back on my feet," Seger said.
Seger's older daughter, Jennifer Kritzer of Greene, offered free haircuts in another part of the medical center. She had already done 11 haircuts over the first two hours.
"High and tights have been the haircut of the day," Kritzer said with a chuckle, referring to a military-style haircut where the sides are cut extremely short.
Kritzer, who owns Impulse Hair Salon in Auburn, spent four years in the Navy, beginning in 1993. Her husband is on active duty with the Maine Army National Guard.
"I try to do what I can to help the veterans," she said.
While a haircut does not supply an urgent need, such as eye care or housing assistance, it helps restore something that is arguably even more important: dignity.
"They walk out with their heads held a little higher and with a smile," Kritzer said. "It's amazing what a haircut can do for someone."
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