No longer homeless, vet gets fresh start

Dennis Nelson, a former U. S. Navy boatswain, has fallen off a submarine, been smashed up in a motorcycle accident and lived on the streets.

But Nelson did not reach rock bottom until he was kicked out of a homeless shelter for disabled vets about four years ago. This tale of Nelson’s decline, relapses, and recovery should be meaningful to all persons concerned with our greatest social ill — homelessness.

Today, Nelson has his own apartment, has passed a HAM radio license test, and was recently baptized in a local church. The Lord does work in mysterious ways.

Nelson was featured in the MilitaryPress on July 15, 2014, as part of a series on the plight of homeless veterans in San Diego. This story today will revisit Nelson’s trials, tribulations and triumphs.

“Maybe some other veteran can learn from my lessons,” Nelson says.

Homelessness is not a disease that can be cured. It is a process, a condition, a lack of socialization that has many components, each of which has to be addressed simultaneously. An unhappy childhood caused Nelson to run away from home at age 14 and to lie about his age in order to enlist in the military. At age 17, he suffered a traumatic injury that was never properly documented. Instead, because he could no longer do heavy and dangerous work, Nelson was drummed out of the military service before he was 21.

Lack of formal education dogged him as he took on factory jobs. On the way to a new job opportunity, at age 29, he was involved in a serious motorcycle accident. For the next 18 months he was a ward of the state, bouncing from one hospital setting to another, until he was dumped back on the streets.

Sick, with no family, no friends, and nowhere to go, Nelson eventually was adopted by a storage facility owner who installed Nelson on the premises to stay on board overnight to replace the guard dogs. Nelson now had a roof over his head, sort of, living in an empty storage unit, but he never had a real home. He read a lot of books, mainly about Greek philosophers, and stayed out of sight.

This reporter had rented her own small storage unit in the same facility.

“I thought you were just an old lady, reviewing her papers, probably from a dead relative,” Nelson confirmed in his recent interview. Thanks, Dennis.

Siegel was reviewing her records that she had collected as the blog writer of The Siegel Sidebar. What attracted her to Nelson was the personal book collection in his maintenance go-cart.

“If you like to read,” Siegel suggested to Nelson, “why not go back to school?”

Nelson had made the common mistake of thinking that the local community college was just a place for technical education. So, back in 2002, Siegel enticed Nelson to visit the campus and persuaded him speak to a guidance counselor. Nelson’s love affair with formal education, often thought of as unreachable and unattainable, had begun.

For the next nine years, Nelson remained on the grounds of the storage facility, but he had a new goal in his life: a real education. He earned a Microsoft certificate and another certificate in accounting.

Nelson also visited the college’s health services, which are available to all registered students.

“I never knew about the services they offered, until I started going back to school,” Nelson said. “For the first time, I found a place where my long-term medical issues could be addressed.”

And this uneasy alliance between going to school, living in a 20-foot-by-20-foot storage unit, and being silent about his real life issues, would continue until August 2011, five years ago, when the ownership of the storage facility business changed hands. They no longer wanted Nelson as the night watchperson, and, thus Nelson was put on the real streets, once again.

Twenty-five years, homeless. Recovering from another serious surgery, again, Nelson applied to a homeless shelter for vets on Sept. 1, 2011, was accepted and now had a place to stay: a bunk bed in a stable place where he could recover and grow.

Not a permanent home and certainly not one without its challenges, but it was a place where he could study, meet with counselors, and learn from his fellow vets. Knowing that he was not alone, not having to struggle by himself anymore, maybe even having the motivation to show leadership to another vet, Nelson had a second chance at a second chance. But like all organized shelters, it had rigid rules to follow, especially about illicit alcohol and drug use.

After living all those lonely years, alone, with little supervision, Nelson was not comfortable in following those mandatory rules. So, he screwed it up for himself and failed a spontaneous drug test. Thus, once again, he found himself on the streets, in April 2012, less than a year after finding his new berth.

At the same time, at that same month, Siegel had undergone her own surgery, when she learned of Nelson’s recent expulsion. On Saturday afternoon, April 15, 2012, Nelson came to visit Siegel at her nursing home where she was recovering. The cantor of Siegel’s synagogue planned to visit Siegel that day, too, and by chance, sure, Nelson was introduced to the Jewish clergy leader while in Siegel’s private recovery room.

After introductions, Nelson used this opportunity to tell this trained and compassionate professional about his personal woe-is-me story. And the religious leader did not buy Nelson’s version. Zero tolerance meant just that.

Dennis Nelson, the homeless, disabled, not so youthful any more, veteran, realized, perhaps for the first time in his life, that if he wanted help from the community, he would have to ask for it and put his own skin in the game. Consequently, after that seminal chance meeting with this counselor, Nelson resolved to appeal the decision to boot him out of the vet shelter that was his last chance for forestalling death on the streets. As part of the deal of letting him back inside, off the streets, Nelson promised to attend and actively participate in an alcohol treatment and recovery program.

Intervention, by concerned friends and by caring counselors, made the difference in Nelson’s life, this time. And the aging process had a sneaky way of melting his heart and opening up his soul.

“I just couldn’t sleep on the ground on private property any more,” admitted Nelson, now 55. “It took me almost 30 minutes each day just getting up.”

Several discombobulating events happened to this reporter, Siegel, four years ago while her friend, Nelson, was busy shortchanging himself. Her mother passed away in February, she had surgery in March, was confined to the nursing home in April and upon returning home, was forced to evacuate because of a devastating apartment complex fire in June. Siegel was lucky to resettle in a new unit in the same complex in July, but she was still reviewing her options.

She received an offer, in August 2012, to consider an upcoming affordable housing program in her community. By this time, Siegel was satisfied with her new apartment but she thought about her friend, Dennis Nelson, who was still unsettled. Eight apartments in the soon-to-be-built building were being set aside for disabled veterans.

Siegel excitedly shared the news with Nelson, who, true-to-form, refused to take a forward approach to his problems.

“Listen, Bro,” Siegel said with passion and exasperation, “Somebody is going to get one of those apartments and there is no reason why it cannot be you.”

This time, something clicked in Nelson’s brain. Six months later, after hard work in applying, he was approved. Nelson moved into a new ground-level one-bedroom unit in a nice neighborhood, in February 2013, where he remains today.

So, Nelson, the no-longer-homeless disabled vet, finally got off the streets and joined the world of daily commuters. Nelson gets around using a combination of his bicycle and his bus pass. He continues his A. A. studies and pursues his strong interest in HAM radio. Every Sunday night, Nelson is on the airwaves, working with local weather forecasters.

But Nelson had not forgotten the life lessons he has learned the hard way. He desperately wanted to join a Christian church, so he could reconnect with his spirituality and his own personal history. Again, he turned to this reporter for help.

Siegel introduced him to her friend who shepherds a local church in Escondido. This past Jan. 31 Nelson was baptized with holy waters in a room full of congregants, friends and supporters.

“I still suffer from my physical injuries and am always undergoing some level of major medical treatment,” Nelson confirmed. “My administrative case for awarding VA disability benefits continues to drag on year after year.”

How is your life different?

“Well, I am not getting married or buying a car, but I do not want to let down the people who intervened for me, either,” he confided. “I feel safe and appreciate having a good night’s sleep. Mostly, I believe that I still can make things happen in my life, that I feel worthwhile, that I have my own space.”

And, doing his own cooking at home, Nelson has lost several inches off his frame.

“I tend to read books with more religious themes now, but I still like my science fiction. I enjoy being a spokesperson for the organization behind the building of my fair housing complex, where I just signed another year’s lease.”

But uncertainty still hangs over Nelson.

“Because I served in a peacetime deployment, I am still being denied benefits that I feel I am entitled to, by the government which I served. I am a disabled U. S. veteran, no longer homeless, but still suffering physical and emotional injuries, past, present, and future.

“What about my future? Am I eligible for burial in a military cemetery? Am I eligible for assisted living? Where am I going to be in five or 10 years? Who is going to take care of me? While I am grateful that new social systems are out there to help me today, where will I be tomorrow?”



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About the Author'

Heather Siegel

Heather Siegel is a well-known disability rights advocate. Each story brings Siegel’s unique insights into the complex lives of disabled veterans struggling to survive in the peacetime world. If you know someone who would be a good candidate for a profile, please contact Heather Siegel — The Siegel Sidebar at or (760) 432-8383.