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Vietnam vet’s indecision highlights the challenges of being homeless

Hawaii News – Honolulu Star-Advertiser

Retired Air Force Sgt. “Skip” Wheeler stood among the chaos of angry and confused homeless people being swept by state sheriff’s deputies on Monday and offered a blunt assessment of himself and his situation as a homeless military veteran.

“Basically, I’m a lazy bum,” Wheeler, 70, told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser as 69 other homeless people poured out of a Mapunapuna bike path on Department of Transportation property. “I need adult supervision. I say that truthfully. I’m not motivated.”

Wheeler’s unvarnished assessment only fueled the frustration felt by Salt Lake resident Dennis Egge, also 70, whose own naval service in Vietnam as a chief petty officer between 1968 and 1975 overlapped with Wheeler’s service in Vietnam between 1964 and 1968.

“We have these people who will take anything they can take from the system,” Egge said. “Whatever we’re willing to give, they’ll take it — and they want more.”

Egge, a part-time condominium manager, tries to help Oahu’s homeless when he can. On Friday night, Egge helped drop off three large trays of rice, beef broccoli and chicken long rice to the Institute for Human Services that could serve dozens of people in the state’s largest homeless shelter.

At the same time, Egge represents untold others across Oahu who are “easily frustrated” — as he put it — that more homeless seem unwilling to change their lives for the better.

“It’s sad, actually,” Egge said. “Very sad.”

But Wheeler did take an important first step.

On Friday, for the first time, Wheeler woke up in the city’s Hale Mauliola homeless “navigation center” on Sand Island after moving in the day before. He had new, clean clothes and a safe place of his own where he could sleep behind a locked door.

After his first 24 hours at Hale Mauliola, however, it was too soon to know whether Wheeler will finally decide for good to move away from the same streets where he was being attacked and robbed.

In one moment outside his shipping container unit at Hale Mauliola, Wheeler told the Star-Advertiser that he’s motivated and wants to change his life. In the next, he said he might not even stay at Hale Mauliola long enough to celebrate his 71st birthday on Dec. 18 because “it feels like living with my parents,” adding: “I don’t want to be told what to do. I came here making my own decisions. I don’t hurt anybody with my decisions.”

Kimo Carvalho, spokesman for IHS, which runs Hale Mauliola for the city, said Wheeler’s attitude after eight years of chronic homelessness is not unusual — and only illustrates the hard work that begins once someone agrees to accept help.

“He’s only been here for two days,” Carvalho said on Saturday. “We’re not discouraged. This is normal for a chronically homeless person. This is just the start. He’s lived without rules for so long that it becomes hard for someone like him to adjust. Any time a chronically homeless person enters a homeless shelter, they’re going through a withdrawal process. There are still many more stages for him to experience. We need to keep him motivated and engaged in (positive) steps. Skip’s situation is very much reflective of the challenges facing homeless service providers.”

With 100 percent disability and Social Security payments, Wheeler has enough money to rent a place of his own on Oahu, but isn’t interested. (He asked that the exact amount of his payments not be disclosed.)

He also could be eligible for housing in 50 new studio apartments aimed at military veterans that opened Friday in Kapolei.

Art Minor, an outreach worker for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, said older veterans such as Wheeler from the Vietnam era are particularly reluctant to seek out help, even if they’re being victimized by other homeless people.

“They have a lot of pride,” he said. “It often takes significant things to happen in their lives before they reach out — like a sweep.”

Outreach workers from the Kalihi-Palama Health Center first met Wheeler in May under the H-1 freeway viaduct but he “did not want any assistance,” wrote Darrin Sato, Kalihi- Palama Health Center’s CEO.

Minor had been looking for another veteran around the bike path last month when some homeless people pointed out Wheeler and “said they were worried about him getting taken advantage of,” Minor said. “I had offered emergency housing the first time I met him. He was not interested in that.”

Minor maintains the DOT’s Oct. 23 sweep of the H-1 freeway viaduct that cleared 120 people — and Monday’s follow-up sweep of the adjacent bike path — helped drive a change in Wheeler’s attitude.

“I think that played a role,” Minor said. “It does bring some people out of the woods.”

Then on Tuesday, IHS had a vacancy at Hale Mauliola.

So when Minor saw Wheeler outside the Keehi Lagoon Memorial on Thursday, Minor picked him up and took Wheeler directly to Hale Mauliola.

“I’m the dumbest (and oldest) of four children who are very smart,” Wheeler told the Star-Advertiser at Hale Mauliola. “One brother has two Ph.D.s, my sister’s a lawyer and another brother has two master’s (degrees) and is working in West Africa (to provide humanitarian relief). Me, I’m a papillon. I’m a butterfly.”

Wheeler was born Edward Slade Wheeler III in San Bernardino, Calif., but prefers to be called Skip — “if you want me to answer.”

After graduating from San Bernardino’s Pacific High School in 1964, Wheeler wanted to join the Marines to join the fight in Vietnam.

“Dad said, ‘No.’ He said I could join the Coast Guard or Navy, but I get seasick,” Wheeler said. “Two weeks later I was in the Air Force.”

While in Vietnam through 1968, Wheeler said he was exposed to Agent Orange and today suffers heart problems and skin problems. He also uses a cane.

Between 1968 and 1972, the Air Force sent him to McClellan Air Force Base in Sacramento, Calif. When he mustered out, Wheeler became a golf pro working courses in California and in the 1980s moved to Oahu to work at military and civilian courses.

He married and divorced two wives and raised four children on Oahu and later drove a taxi.

Then, eight years ago, Wheeler decided to live by himself, away from other people. He moved under a bridge near Keehi Lagoon Beach Park and outfitted his encampment with a generator that fed air conditioning, a flat-screen TV and a DVD player.

Wheeler said it wasn’t an option to move in with any of his children.

“I didn’t want to interrupt their lives, not when I can take care of myself,” he said. Later, Wheeler said: “None of them offered and I don’t know if I would take it.”

While living in and around the H-1 freeway viaduct, Wheeler got robbed numerous times, losing cash and IDs in the process.

Asked about being assaulted, Wheeler said, “I gave them a reason not to do it again. I’m not violent. I’m not aggressive, but I sure will protect myself. It was the cost of doing business.”

Wheeler remains unsure of what happens next. He characterized his life as “at a crossroads.”

Scott Morishige, the state’s homeless coordinator, said that even homeless people who have been preyed upon have trouble adjusting when they’re placed in a new situation, even when it’s safer.

“Even when they’re being assaulted on the street, it’s hard for many people to make a change,” Morishige said. “Even though you have the security of four walls and a door, you don’t have that same sense of community that you relied on. Even though it’s not a 100 percent feel-good story, it’s important for people to understand how difficult it is.”

As Wheeler contemplates which direction his life will take next, Minor, from the VA, is still looking for the original veteran he was tracking down when he first met Wheeler a month ago.

Asked if he’s concerned that other veterans like Wheeler are living off the grid in potentially dangerous situations, Minor said: “Absolutely. That’s definitely concerning. I’m sure there are others out there like him.”


© 2017 The Honolulu Star-Advertiser

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