It was the day after Christmas 2012, and Robert Long was out of options.
The New Jersey native had seen his share of misery. From a childhood he describes as tough, to an adulthood marred by depression, substance abuse and divorce, he’d experienced more than enough to land him on Philadelphia’s streets.
Still, for Long, a soft-spoken man with an affable manner and eyes that have witnessed too much, homelessness was beyond the pale.
He’d once had it all: A 27-year marriage that produced three sons, 18 years of military service that propelled him to the rank of captain and a long career at an oil refinery that provided a middle-class living for the family he cherished.
A tragic turn
Yet, despite all he’d done in service to his family and his nation, Long — who’d served in both the Army and National Guard — found himself addled by cocaine addiction and depression.
At 55 years old, with the world celebrating the holidays around him, Long was alone and, like nearly 58,000 other veterans living on America’s streets at the time, he was homeless.
“It’s a helpless feeling when you have no place to turn or you think you have no place to turn,” Long said, as he recalled that fateful night.
As Long spoke, his social worker, Earl Driscoll — a burly, bearded man with smiling eyes — sat nearby. Driscoll had already helped Long overcome homelessness. Now, his mere presence was helping Long to tell his story.
“If you’re a proud man or woman sometimes its hard to ask for help,” Long continued as Driscoll looked on. “Plenty of people can relate to that, but things are getting better. The glass is half filled now instead of half empty. There’s a ray of hope.”
That’s because Long, a veteran whose addiction saw him relapse repeatedly, found a program that could meet him at his point of need. Or rather, that program — and the social workers that run it — found him.
Pathways to Housing, which uses a housing-first model to reach veterans who are persistently homeless, is driven not by therapists or doctors, but by social workers who help to house the chronically homeless.
The organization combines housing with treatment in the areas of mental and physical health, substance abuse, education and employment.
Founded in Philadelphia in 2008, the program boasts an 89 percent housing-retention rate even amongst the chronically homeless.
The program’s work with veterans like Long is funded through the National Center on Homelessness Among Veterans, which is run by Vincent Kane, a social worker in the Veterans Administration (VA).
Amid the problems that the VA has had in recent years, with scandals concerning botched treatment and mishandled paperwork, poor record keeping and long wait times that sometimes resulted in the deaths of veterans, the program for homeless veterans is a bright spot.
That, said Kane, is because of the partnerships that the organization implemented at the community level. It was those partnerships, he said, that helped to reduce Philadelphia’s population of homeless veterans from as many as 300 in 2011 to 40 today.
“One of the things you learn in social work school is always to be thinking about engaging people from a strength-based model,” Kane said.
“And when you think about ending homelessness and trying to reconnect with people that have been really disconnected from community for prolonged periods of time,” he continued, “you really do have to have that as your mindset, as your philosophy, as your core beliefs, that everyone has these strengths and you need to help pull them out of the individual.”
For Robert Long, reconnecting him to community meant reaching into the downward spiral that had trapped him. His was a story that began long ago.
A tall man with thinning hair and a steady gait, it’s easy to imagine Robert Long in uniform.
With a graying mustache cropped to the edge of his lips like the Army man he is, he speaks in measured tones as he recalls his past. He is careful not to reveal too much about others.
“I don’t share many family stories,” he says when pressed.
But in fits and starts, the bits of truth that paved his road to homelessness are revealed.
Born and raised in a small New Jersey town, Long was kicked out of his parents’ house around his 18th birthday. He joined the Army soon after, serving from 1975 to 1979 as an enlisted man in the infantry. He was detailed at military funerals at national cemeteries.
Long married a girl from his hometown after their children were born. When his first stint of active duty was over, he came home. Marriage was not easy at first, but he settled into a routine, found work at an oil refinery and built the kind of middle-class lifestyle to which he aspired.
He soon joined the New Jersey National Guard, where he went to Officer Candidate School, and advanced to the rank of captain.
Over time, though, Long began to suffer from depression. That led him to self medicate, and thus, his addiction began.
“With this substance abuse thing, I keep telling myself I’m a light switch,” Long said. “I can turn it on turn it off, and I guess I turned it on more than I turned it off.”
It began with what he calls “high-school type drug use.” His wife tolerated it, he said, but when the refinery where Long worked was sold, his life began to change, and the careful balance he’d achieved in his life went off-kilter.
As his job security eroded and stress became the norm, Long leaned on drugs to get him through the strain.
When he was arrested for a DUI just a stone’s throw from his job, managers at the refinery demanded that he take a drug test. Long refused, he says, because he was too proud. So, instead of getting the help his employer would’ve offered, he eventually lost his job.
After that came the divorce, and after that, nothing else mattered. Nothing, that is, except the drugs.
“I’ve been a substance abuser off and on during periods of my life whether I’ve had periods of success or periods where it’s ‘Why me?’ or periods where I felt insecure or not appreciated,” Long said.
“And push comes to shove, after a while you get away with that substance abuse,” he continued. “It’s like being a little kid in kindergarten. No one caught me today, so I’m going to do it tomorrow, and after a while things catch up to you. Everything has an end.
“And the end came to a point where I didn’t have a roof over my head, could barely eat, didn’t know where to turn or what to expect the next day.”
That end came during the winter of 2012, when Long looked around and found that the life he’d carefully built for himself had crumbled.
His job was gone.
His family was gone.
And, his home was gone, too.
“I was living in nothing but rooms, being able to pay rent or not pay rent, being jobless,” Long said. “You know … homelessness comes pretty quick sometimes — more quick than you realize. I lost a lot of things.”
Faced with little choice but to seek help, Long went to Philadelphia’s shelters.
There, he quickly learned two things: He didn’t want to be in a place where the streets, and all their ills, were enclosed by walls. And, he didn’t want to be in a place where he’d be forced to face his own addiction.
A ‘self-imposed cycle’
As a result, he floundered for nearly two years in the city’s shelter system, repeating a self-imposed cycle.
He’d work with the VA, filling out paperwork to get into a shelter facility or treatment program, and after a time, he would relapse back into addiction.
He’d take the medication for the depression from which he suffered. Still, the cocaine would call out to him. The relapses, he said, came with consequences. There were shelters where he was no longer welcome.
“I’ve burned so many bridges in the homeless community, I was running out of places to go,” Long said.
He was in his second stint at his fifth shelter facility when a call came out of nowhere.
The social worker at Pathways left a message: She explained that as a veteran, Long could take advantage of a housing-first program that would put him in his own apartment without the clean and sober requirements of the shelter system, and give him housing subsidies without the years-long wait for a Section 8 certificate.
“I had no idea what was going on,” Long said of the call. “[It seemed like] just another thing, more paperwork, but that’s how it all began, and we played phone tag a couple times. … She talked me into it. She said, ‘Let’s just do the paperwork anyway’ and I said to myself, after thinking about it, ‘I’ve got nothing to lose but time. Who knows what could happen?'”
What happened was a team of five social workers who worked with Long to get the documents he needed to obtain housing. Long was aggressive in getting those documents, but Pathways was, too.
“I didn’t have my birth certificate. It’s a key part of the package [to obtain housing],” Long said. “They were going to take me to New Jersey on a Friday afternoon with a $20 check … to obtain my birth certificate, and it was pre-set up, and bring me back to accomplish that part of the housing package.”
Four months after that first call, Long was out of the shelter and into a brand-new, state-of-the-art apartment building built with the cooperation of rock star Jon Bon Jovi and Philadelphia-based homeless services organization, Project H.O.M.E.
More than an apartment, though, Long had something he hadn’t found in years. He had people he could trust—people who understood what he was going through.
Earl Driscoll, the leader of the team of social workers who helped Long find his way home, was one of those people. The connection between the two men was deeper than Long could know.
A life-altering connection
Smiling behind his glasses, Earl Driscoll — the doctoral candidate whose social work career grew out of his desire to help people like himself — is frank when he tells his own story.
“I have been through the city shelter system,” Driscoll says. “At that time, there was no Housing First model.
“In order to get help with housing, you had to stop using and I was at a place with my own history with addiction that I was ready to stop using, and I became abstinent and moved into transitional housing at an SRO — Single Room Occupancy — through Section 8.”
It was a long path to the day when Driscoll was ready, however.
His addiction to methamphetamine led him to other things.
“Back then it was crank, monster,” Driscoll says. “But when I didn’t have any more veins [and] couldn’t do any injections, I started smoking crack, and if there was no crack, I started taking pills, and if there were no pills it was, ‘What do you got?’
“Did I want to steal money out of my mother’s purse? No, that’s not the person that I am. Did I do that? Yes I did. Am I proud of it? No, but it’s part of what’s happened and part of who I am. But even at the time I was stealing money out of my mother’s purse, I still was a person with feelings and compassion and desire to help and all that other stuff that was just, like, sidetracked with active addiction.”
When Driscoll got clean 16 and a half years ago, with the help of others who’d been down the same path, he wanted to reach back and do the same for someone else. He chose to do so through social work.
“I don’t walk into a situation and hit people upside the head and say, ‘I’ve been where you’ve been and I know what it’s like, so I can help you,'” Driscoll said. “I more or less come in as a social worker and help people go through their own process, but my experience informs my mindset and my perspective to providing services.”
That, said Robert Long, is important.
“It’s better to have somebody that has walked the walk rather than talked the talk,” Long said. “That’s not to take anything away from the social workers who haven’t experienced homelessness, or substance abuse or whatever, but you can relate to the person a lot more [when they’ve been there] and you can share a lot more information.”
In Long’s case, he’s sharing miracles.
The first, he says, is that he is living in a building he couldn’t imagine himself just two year ago.
The second is much more personal.
A family reunion
“The loss of job and substance abuse drove a big wedge through our family, which is very near and dear to my heart,” Long said.
He quickly changed the subject as his emotions welled up behind his military carriage. After a few moments, however, he returned to the theme of family, and tells the tale of the day he realized he was home.
“When I moved into the building, I was out walking one day and I took an alternative course,” Long said. “The other side of the building is 15th Street and normally I walk up and down Broad Street, just because my sense of direction is not very good, so I decided to take 15th Street for whatever reason to go down to Spring Garden.
“I’m walking on one side of the street. I see a guy looking in his trunk, a tall skinny guy. I walk by and think nothing of it and I’m like, ‘Wait a minute. That looks like my son.'”
“I walk back, took another peek, and I noticed that the car was black. I noticed it was a BMW, and the kid still had his head stuck in the trunk. I could see him and then I noticed the Jersey tags and Jersey license plate. So I say, ‘God, man, that is my son. So, I walked over there, he stuck his head out, and it was my oldest son.
“We haven’t seen each other face to face or exchanged a word in 10 years, and it was great. I actually didn’t cry. Neither did he. It was like we never lost contact. That’s how smooth the transition was.
“Although we lost contact, he didn’t disown me, I know he loves me and we’ve been in contact almost every day since.”
Long smiles at that in a way that he hasn’t smiled during the many hours in which we’ve talked.
And days later when we meet again, in his studio apartment with a walk-in closet, full bathroom and kitchen, it’s not the housing Long talked about as Earl Driscoll looks on. It’s family.
“I have one more son I have to reconnect with,” Long said. “It’s gonna happen. It’s just a matter of when.
“I’m pretty positive that once we break the ice and get back to normal, everybody’ll be a lot happier. I don’t know how much happiness they’ll share with me, but after seeing my oldest son after a long period of time, there’s no feeling like it.”
This story was produced as part of Lifelines: Stories from the Human Safety Net, a project of the Journalism Center on Children and Families supported by the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) Foundation.