Editor’s note: This story is the third in a series on the issue of homelessness among military veterans in Cherokee County. Annual homeless surveys in the county identified 21 homeless veterans in 2017 and 15 in 2018. Local homeless veterans’ advocates believe the actual number is higher.
ATLANTA – Homelessness was not new for James Ellis when he found himself making his bed in the woods near Acworth nightly, 12 years after his return from the Army. He’d had experience even before he’d earned a high school diploma.
Ellis said he grew up around Dupree Road in Woodstock, and in his late middle school years, after abuse at home and short stints in foster care, he started running away into the woods in the Sixes Road area to live by himself, a homeless teenager attempting to finish his education during the day and scavenging for food at night.
“Through my early teenage years, I lived up in an abandoned marble quarry in the woods, and I would sneak through doggy doors in people’s houses, not to take TVs or jewelry, but I would raid people’s refrigerators,” Ellis said in an interview with the Tribune on Wednesday. “I was young, and I didn’t know what to do. So I’d grab an armload of food and crawl right back out the doggy door.”
Ellis said early in high school, he spoke to a counselor and told her that he wanted to finish school, but he had nowhere to live. She referred him to the Fort Stewart Youth Challenge Academy, a Georgia National Guard military academy in Fort Stewart, Georgia.
“She suggested the military school, because I grew up in a military family and I was very Army-minded,” he said. “I went to the academy and graduated, which was good – it was a good decision.”
In 1999, shortly after graduation, Ellis enlisted in the Army. He said he wanted to be in the Special Forces or infantry initially, but was told he qualified only for more technical jobs. He eventually became an Apache helicopter crew chief.
“At first I didn’t like my job,” Ellis said. “In hindsight, I’m actually quite thankful (for it). I still joke that I learned how to fly a helicopter before I learned how to drive a car.”
Ellis said he planned to stay in the Army until it was time to retire, but near the end of his four-year enlistment, he reconsidered, and pursued a relationship that didn’t pan out the way he’d expected.
“I have to say that was my only regret, because if I’d stayed in, I’d be almost retired by now,” he said.
After his discharge in 2003, Ellis said he returned home, rented himself an apartment on Dupree Road and worked various jobs, ranging from fast food to information technology support technician, but readjusting to a civilian life was more challenging than anticipated.
“After being in charge of a $22 million piece of equipment and having people’s lives in your hands, for the rest of your life your mentality is permanently changed,” he said. “Whenever I’d have a job in a menial place, like fast food, I’d get completely frustrated and upset at incompetence… And they wouldn’t understand, they’d say, ‘James, you’re not in the Army anymore. Nobody’s life is in danger. It’s just hamburgers.’”
The lack of structure found in his new civilian life with no family or friends to support him resulted in a “complete malfunction,” he said.
“The first couple years (back) were a complete disaster,” he said. “I went from being a functional, highly disciplined person – an overachiever – in the military, and then I hit the civilian world… In the military, you give and receive orders, and those are carried out to a T, and there’s no question on whether or not all the people around you are going to function in a prescribed manner. So it was a shock to me when I came home to find out that I can’t bark orders or instructions at people and people function like I expect them to.”
Ellis said he began getting into trouble frequently for minor offenses – drunk in public, fights, traffic tickets – which ultimately became his undoing. He said that in 2015, three days after a memorial service for his grandmother, the last living member of his family, he was picked up on an arrest warrant for two traffic tickets and spent 90 days in jail.
“It was only a couple hundred bucks, but I didn’t have it and I didn’t have a single person I could call,” Ellis said. “When I stepped out of the jail, I was homeless from that point on.”
Ellis said he became even more of a recluse, living in a campsite near Acworth for about a year and working during the day, mostly in the fast food industry. But one day in November 2016, he decided he’d had enough.
“I was sitting out in the woods all by myself and I got the notion to travel. I hadn’t seen the beach in a year, so I decided to live out on the open road like a traveling gypsy,” he said.
Ellis said he hitchhiked from Atlanta to near the Florida line, and “made it my purpose” to walk the entire eastern coast of Florida, down to the Keys, to see every beach.
“I would walk 15-20 miles a day all the way down Highway 1,” he said. “I’d walk for about three days in between towns or cities, and then I’d stop when I would find a spot that I liked and recharge my batteries and enjoy the beach.”
Ellis said he never panhandled or told anyone that he was a veteran along the way. He said he paid for his trip by taking day laborer jobs in the towns along his route and that the pair of “good work boots” he brought with him landed him those jobs.
“I never once presented myself as a veteran, because I always thought it was embarrassing,” he said. “If I was supposed to be a highly disciplined, well-trained, functioning person of the armed forces and in charge of $22 million aircraft, how did I become dysfunctional enough to where I (couldn’t) take care of myself and wound up on the street?”
The money he made took him from place to place, and he often bunked in abandoned houses or motels – once, he said, even in one of St. Augustine’s fort battlements, though he couldn’t remember which.
Ellis said his journey took him 8-9 months, and awarded him opportunities many don’t have in a lifetime – including witnessing a rocket launch from the Kennedy Space Center – but, he said that the way he lived is not to be glorified.
“Living as a traveler has its dangers to it, especially when you’re passing through cities,” he said.
His high-quality outdoor gear, like his military backpack and Gore-Tex jacket, made him a target for robberies by other “street people,” he said, and he recounted one particularly close call.
“He was a big guy – like two and half times my size – and he had severe addiction problems. And he knew I had like $6 in change in the top of my backpack,” Ellis said.
After a while, Ellis said the man finally stopped begging and made a beeline for his pack, forcing him to retaliate with an extendable baton and mace.
He said he’s thankful he didn’t have to resort to violence many times during his travels, but if he had a choice between losing his gear and fighting, he would.
“Somebody taking your backpack can be a death sentence when you’re out in the elements,” Ellis said. “Plus, I could have been killed over it. So it’s kind of a primal survival-type mode.”
While his trip granted him temporary freedom from the life he’d left behind, upon his return to the woods around Woodstock in the summer of 2017, Ellis said he had an epiphany: he didn’t want to be alone forever, he couldn’t live the way he had been forever and he needed help. But when he tried to reach out, he said his lack of identification meant he struggled to find a job or connect with the resources he needed.
“Over my journey, I’d lost my wallet and my identification – I think it was stolen, I’m not sure,” he said. “Once that’s gone, you’re really limited.”
Even more frustrating was that a renewal of ID – military or otherwise – required proof of residence, which Ellis did not have, he said.
Eventually, he said he got in touch with Tim King, director of the Cherokee Veterans Community, a ministry out of First Baptist Church Woodstock, who put him in touch with Jim Lindenmayer of the Cherokee County Homeless Veterans Program and Dan Valentine of the Veterans Empowerment Organization in Atlanta.
Ellis is currently in transitional housing at the VEO. He said being referred to the resource was the best thing that could have happened to him.
“It’s been a blessing and a platform for me to get reintegrated back into society,” he said.
The challenge of assimilation into civilian life is not gone with his living there, as living homeless for as long as he did left him “street institutionalized,” Ellis said.
“I was like Tom Hanks in Castaway, when he comes back from the island,” he said. “He’s flipping light switches on and off, and he can’t sleep on the bed. I used my backpack for a pillow for so long, that a real pillow actually felt really weird to my face, and it took me a couple days to get used to that again.”
But Ellis said he has structure, expectations and purpose again.
The structure and expectations of the facility are most of the reason that it works, Valentine said in an interview with the Tribune on Wednesday.
“This is a key part of our 80-plus percent success rate… Our programs, while personalized for each veteran, are specifically designed to move them forward toward self-sufficiency,” he said. “The natural progression includes, not necessarily in this order, moving from transitional housing (no cost) to permanent housing ($450 per month); preparing and applying for jobs; working; getting treatment for any psychological, addiction or medical issues; getting the documentation they need to work, drive, qualify for government benefits; (and) getting qualified for the Veterans Affairs or other benefits they are entitled to. No one is allowed to come in and just lay around.”
Ellis’s struggle to adjust is not unlike many others at the VEO, and his story won’t end here, Valentine said. There are several steps to getting Ellis and others back on their feet and helping them reach a sustainable life, and one of the most difficult of those steps is also the most important.
“Government services are often challenging to navigate, (and) most veterans don't understand what benefits/services they are eligible for,” Valentine said.
There are also many nonprofits and veteran programs that a majority of veterans either don’t know about or can’t access, and even some of those can battle with barriers to getting veterans the help they need – most often because of a lack of money, Valentine said.
According to Lindenmayer, Ellis is still working his way to renewal of IDs and security of benefits. In the meantime, he said, local communities owe it to their veterans to work to provide a bridge to a sustainable life, like what is offered at the VEO.
“Cherokee County has just about 16,000 veterans living here and we have 0 shelters for veterans or non-veterans,” Lindenmayer previously told the Tribune. “We were told four years ago, by various politicians, three things: We have no money for you, we have no one to help you and don’t put a shelter in our back yard.”
Ellis agreed that communities often take a “not in my backyard” stance, but he said he’s thankful for what he’s been lucky enough to find in Atlanta. The more light that can be brought to resources like these – where veterans can feel a sense of empowerment and ownership in their lives – the better, he said.
“Before I came here, I didn’t know what to do to make progress or move forward in life,” Ellis said. “Here I’m not the crazy Army guy in the woods – I’m another veteran.”