William Torres was a New York City firefighter on September 11th, 2001. He escaped the World Trade Center towers just 45 seconds before they would have collapsed on top of him.
That trauma, combined with the shame and embarrassment Willie suffered as a Vietnam veteran, sent him on a downward spiral.
“I was a homeless veteran in New York City. I was also a drug addict,” Torres says matter-of-factly. “Living in the subways, eating out of garbage cans. Rock bottom, as they say.” All of this, not even five years ago.
Today, Willie is the resident manager of Loyola Recovery Foundation’s transition home in East Pembroke, after a grueling road back from the lowest point of his life. Willie is healthy and sober – and most of all, he is a rock for other homeless veterans at Loyola to steady themselves upon, when they’ve hit “rock bottom” too.
“I would never leave this company; it’s like my family,” Willie says.
Loyola was founded in 2006 when a group of veterans realized what a homeless problem their military brethren had fallen upon.
“There’s 1,050,000 military men and women in New York State,” says Frank Ryan, the Vice President for Loyola’s Clinical Services. “If you stay with the national average, ten-percent of them are homeless. Twenty percent of them are addicted to drugs. And the VA is overwhelmed.”
Enter Frank and his partners. Together they opened their first facility: a detoxification center at the VA Hospital in Bath, Steuben County. A short time later, another center opened at Albany’s VA Hospital – which set the stage for East Pembroke.
“There is a real need for this type of service,” says Frank, a Vietnam veteran himself. “It became immediately obvious (at Bath) that forty to forty-five percent of the veterans we were seeing were homeless. It became even more apparent when we opened our Albany site, and the numbers did not change.” So the group petitioned the VA to allow them to open a transition home – the vital missing link between detox and re-entry into the world. Their wish was granted, and the East Pembroke home opened six months ago.
Since that first day, the home has never had an open bed for more than one day.
“We’re trying to get them back on keel – we’ve had people as young as 22, and the oldest one was 74,” says Jeff Smith, the House Manager in East Pembroke, and the Director of Veteran Support Services for Loyola. “It affects everybody. They need to be taken care of.”
Willie Torres was one of those who needed care. Now, he returns that favor to his fellow veterans – like Jimmy, who he tells a story about.
“Jimmy was very closed up, he wouldn’t talk to anybody. He would isolate in his room,” says Willie. “I would talk with him, and he started to open up. His thing was: his daughter was murdered.” Willie says Jimmy knew where the murderer was, and was ready to seek the man out and kill him. Willie persuaded him that his daughter would not want that for her father.
“We cried in here…he held me, I held him,” says Willie. “He said it helped him so much to open up and let go; he’d never spoken to anyone about it.” After that, Jimmy was social and friendly – “a changed person,” says Jeff Smith. Jimmy has since moved on to live in Massachusetts.
For Frank Ryan, that was the mission when he helped to begin this venture six years ago – serving those who served, so that amidst the turmoil they’d been through, they could find themselves again.
“The men and women that have served this country need to be treated with the respect and dignity that they’ve earned,” Ryan says. He’s quick to recall that after Vietnam, he couldn’t wear his uniform without being jeered at or spit upon. “I will do everything in my power to be sure that (disrespect) doesn’t happen again,” whether it’s brought on by others, or by the vets themselves in the form of substance abuse.
Ryan confirms that the Loyola Recovery Foundation is tentatively looking at options to move into other states. There are also plans for outpatient clinics, and some new pharmaceutical treatments. “We have been blessed to be able to do this,” Frank says.
“The words ‘homeless’ and ‘veteran’ should never be in the same sentence,” says Jeff Smith, quoting Ronald Reagan. “And that’s kind of how we feel here.”
TOP PHOTO: From left, Willie Torres, Frank Ryan, and Jeff Smith outside the Loyola Recovery Foundation Home in East Pembroke
INSET: The common dinner table for all residents at the East Pembroke home