Darnell doesn’t want you to say “thank you for your service,” but he does want to answer your questions about his experience serving, and to share his story with you. In October, our staff had the opportunity to sit down with the 53-year-old veteran and resident at Community Housing Partnership’s supportive housing residence, the Essex, to hear his experiences as a Veteran and life living homeless in San Francisco.
Please note this story contains some graphic retellings of Darnell’s experience as a Marine that may be triggering, or unsuitable for young audiences.
A Young Soldier
Darnell didn’t have the easiest of upbringings – he and his two sisters grew up in various communities throughout the East Bay, including some dangerous areas of East Oakland. Eager to get away from what felt like a dead-end life with few jobs in a rough neighborhood – and following in the footsteps of his father, who himself served in the Navy – Darnell joined the Marines in 1983, at the young age of 19. Having already lived through a lot in his first nineteen years, Darnell wasn’t fearful when he joined – in fact, he saw his service as an opportunity to get away and see the world.
Darnell was stationed in Afghanistan, and was in the first line at Desert Storm – already positioned there before the coalition forces led by the United States put more boots on the ground. He recalls some of the traumatic experiences he encountered when serving, and in particular when one of his friends — one of seven partners he served alongside – was hit by an explosive. “It was leave no man behind,” he shares candidly. “Even after he lost half of his body and died, we carried him for five days to get him back home to his parents to give him a proper burial.”
“It’s stories like that I’ve never told anyone – only a few.”
Life Back in the States
After completing his service, Darnell returned home in one piece – but not unscathed. He suffered from shrapnel in his eye that would cause enough long-term damage to later render that eye legally blind. Darnell shares how even post-surgery, it took more than a year to get used to living without depth perception while trying to navigate the stairs of his building.
Darnell, who today is on disability, also suffers from a number of hip and back problems as a result of the hard labor jobs he took as a general construction engineer after serving in Afghanistan. Darnell was always a hard worker, and shared how he went to school for six years for his certification, was part of the labor construction union, and worked hard to keep himself on his feet. But even as sensibly and cautiously as he worked, Darnell couldn’t escape the inevitable wear and tear that hard labor does on one’s body – and struggled to continue to work.
Homeless in San Francisco
One evening in 2015, escaping a corrosive family situation in the East Bay, in poor health and without work or a stable place to live – having already spent some time in a shelter in Richmond – Darnell hopped on a BART train headed for San Francisco. The next thing he remembers, he’s on a gurney heading to General Hospital, piecing together that he may have been attacked and robbed when he first arrived at Embarcadero station. From there, Darnell’s health and stability continued to waver.
Following his hospitalization, Darnell found himself in medical respite care as he slowly regained his strength. When he was well enough to enter the shelter system, he found that the clothes and belongings that his family had sent in advance of his arrival were missing – and all he had on him in the middle of winter were the sweats and t-shirt he arrived in. Staff at partner agency, St. Anthony’s were kind enough to provide him with warm clothes, but even so, he – along with the other individuals experiencing homelessness – were required to leave the shelters during the daytime, amidst two large storms that hit the Bay Area that year. He did what he could to stay warm and survive.
Darnell continued to do his best to navigate the shelter system for a full year and seven months — until one day he returned to his bed to find five letters waiting for him, summoning him to talk to a social worker upstairs.
A New Beginning
When Darnell first heard the words “It has a bathroom, kitchenette — so, what do you think?” all he could feel was shock and numbness, and he remained that way even after he moved into his new apartment through Community Housing Partnership’s supportive housing program at the Essex. In the first few days after he arrived, he sat in the privacy of his own room and reflected on the possibilities. “You finally get there and it just hits you like that,” he shares. “I could take a hot shower in privacy if I wanted.”
“I was so grateful, it’s like saying you just won the lottery. I’ve been blessed ever since.”
That was in January 2017, and Darnell has continued to make the most of the home and support he has at the Essex. “I like to come down [to the Resident Services Office] now to be around positive people, and a positive atmosphere. There’s a lot of negativity outside, and I don’t like being around that – but coming down here is like a breath of fresh air. Everything is positive and the staff help me so much.”
Growing Towards Stability
Community Housing Partnership’s Resident Services Team at the Essex have helped Darnell think big about what else is possible for his future. “It’s like they read my mind when they said they can support me in getting a disabled job,” he shares. “Years ago I said if I ever get disability, I’m not going to sit around. When I get back and know I can stand on my feet, my goal is to get a disabled job and work.” Darnell has been able to transfer from disabled general assistance to permanent disability, and he’s motivated to think about working again. One of his current goals is to be able to support his family back in Oakland.
The support system at the Essex has also encouraged Darnell to explore other positive outlets, like journaling and poetry. A poem Darnell wrote was even featured in the building’s recent community newsletter. He paraphrases it for us during our interview. (Read Darnell’s full poem below.)
“[The staff here] are more than a friend, they care unconditionally. I can come down here and anything can be solved, and they want to go out of their way to help me. It’s more than a job to them – they go way beyond that. I can get down here and talk for a minute and that’s my daily dose of positive to keep me going.”
Sharing and connecting with others continues to be meaningful to Darnell. He shares that this opportunity to speak about his service, his experience with homelessness, and his challenges feels cathartic, almost like therapy.
Darnell hopes by sharing his journey he can help others who have struggled or had similar experiences. So each Veterans Day, let’s not simply thank Darnell for his service, let’s thank him for his story.
Life as I see it today…
They say life is hard and then you die
But you can make life better for yourself if you only try
This world is not fair and equal and politicians lie
They make us do what we have to just to survive
So if true love is all I have to offer and I do not lie —
That’s the only thing that will keep us together just to stay alive
You too can be a source of support and strength for other individuals who have experienced homelessness like Darnell. Make a donation today to fuel more life-saving, life-changing programs to serve your neighbors who are struggling in 2019.