Hope & Honor: U.S. Navy veteran calls storage unit his home (VIDEO)
PRESCOTT - Richard Findlay's motorized walker crunches on the snow-covered driveway as he slowly glides toward his hillside storage unit, the metal door squawking as he steps inside out of the frigid air.
He maneuvers through a narrow passageway lined with wood-framed photographs and old calendars. He turns left, and heads down a wider aisle between a maze of wood-making tools, a metal-frame bunk bed, and a row of rocking horses he designed and crafted in this very space.
On the rear wall is a dorm-sized refrigerator, a microwave, crock pot and coffee pot. He brews fresh coffee with bottled water. Across from where he stands is a lime green sofa turned on its side, blocking off a less cluttered space where he has mounted copies of his bachelor's and master's degrees from Northern Arizona University and a portrait taken in his U.S. Navy uniform during the Vietnam War.
The drafty space is warmed by a small, propane heater located next to a tray table covered with Findlay's daily medications and wine bottle bird-feeders he hopes to sell at local craft fairs.
This 63-year-old former community college industrial arts teacher has nailed some white-slatted blinds to block the bed from the entrance. Behind it he mounted a mountain landscape painting he inherited from his parents' former home in Flagstaff.
Far from luxurious, the storage space is filled to the brim with everything from wood saws and tools to grocery carts, clothes and odds and ends of furniture he salvaged from trash bins. He has a couple of flat-screen televisions hidden in the mix, not that they are of any use in a place without cable or Wi-Fi. He has a portable radio that allows him to listen to music.
He has no running water, or bathroom facilities.
Most days when the weather is hospitable, Findlay said he doesn't mind the inconvenience. He relies on bathroom facilities at nearby stores and restaurants, and can always shower at The Salvation Army or the Open Door, a free meal service and food pantry.
Findlay has no reliable transportation - a truck and motorized bicycle were impounded due to motor vehicle violations and he could not afford the fines - and is on the wrong side of the law when it comes to his unorthodox living arrangements. He lives with constant uncertainty about his dwelling place.
Yet he feels he is far more fortunate than many of this city's homeless forced to sleep in tents outdoors.
"I'm not the norm," Findlay said. "I have a pretty good deal going on."
Still, Findlay admits his off-the-grid lifestyle is not what he imagined, nor what he prefers. He simply has opted to make the best of his less-than-ideal circumstances.
"I've tried to talk to him about a lot of things, but he's done this for years," declared homeless advocate Jean Lutz, the founder and director of Everybody's Place, an art-related program for the homeless. Findlay relies on Lutz for rides to the VA and other appointments, describing her as one of his "best pals."
"He's smart enough to know what to do, and how to keep air circulation (in the unit)," Lutz said. "What I really worry about is if he were to have a heart attack, or pass out, and not be able to get out of there."
She, though, is sympathetic to him and other homeless veterans who find the charitable bureaucracy, be it at the VA or elsewhere, to be more work than it's worth. She said the transition for the newly homeless seems to be smoother than for those who have been without a home for years.
"We're a small community," Lutz said. "We just don't have the apartment buildings, the physical facilities, to house these people. So we try and put them in tiny, shack-like apartments that are barely better than living on the streets."
As a non-profit volunteer for years, Lutz said she fears that much of what is offered here is "stop-gap," a coat, a hot meal, some emergency shelter. She also knows some of the homeless are suspicious of help.
"They've been kicked in the teeth every time they turn around. And I can't blame them," Lutz said.
In the last three years, Findlay was a client at the VA's domiciliary, spent 40 days in the Project Aware men's shelter, rented rooms for as much as $200 a month, and took advantage of a variety of other local charities, including The Salvation Army and Coalition for Compassion and Justice's Open Door program. He is a regular at the Veterans Resource Center.
Yet he is jaded about the VA's medical and homeless outreach services. He has mixed reviews on other veteran-oriented charities, and does not disguise his animosity toward local law enforcement.
"All government agencies don't look out for veterans," Findlay said. "They want veterans to come to them. They need to go out and find them and help them do whatever it takes ... As a teacher, I was always accountable. Where is the effort to take care of veterans when they need it the most?"
Findlay admits he has a reputation as something of a hothead, a pot-stirrer, willing to speak out for the homeless but not always with desired diplomacy. He knows he suffers from some post-traumatic stress.
A skilled artisan who is also computer-savvy, Findlay said he has much to offer, but is not employable because of his numerous medical ailments, including a severely damaged hip and arthritis that limits his mobility.
His income is such he cannot afford a typical apartment rent - he collects a $130 monthly veteran pension and a little over $800 a month in Social Security. His 600 square-foot storage unit costs him about $300 a month.
In the near future, Findlay hopes he will be eligible for either a VA housing voucher, a rental subsidy, or some brand of affordable senior housing. He eschews the paperwork, but as he ages he recognizes the need for a more stable, secure environment. A bathroom.
Findlay's life was not always off kilter.
He grew up as one of four children to parents, Frank, a U.S. Air Force veteran, and Eldemira, a homemaker. The family spent his first 12 years in Flagstaff, and then his father moved for work to Aurora, Colorado. As a senior in high school, Findlay worked part-time as a house framer and after high school started in the construction trades.
In 1972, at age 18, Findlay expected he would be drafted.
"I didn't want to go and play in the mud with the Army or Marines, so I joined the Navy," said Findlay who ended up in the South Pacific including tours off the coast of Vietnam.
Findlay stayed in active duty until 1976, and then did two years of Naval Reserves. He opted to have his final station be on the West Coast because his father was suffering from mental illness and his mother needed support. He earned his college degrees close to home.
In 1979, he married, but divorced seven years later. The couple had no children.
From the early 1980s into the early 1990s, Findlay taught industrial arts in districts across the state, including on an Indian reservation. He offered a women-in-transition program in one place, and taught community toy-making workshops on weekends.
He eventually switched gears, and opened his own wood-working gallery in Sedona. Then in 1998 he was called back to Flagstaff to care for his ailing parents.
For the next 15 years, Findlay was his mother's live-in caretaker, working odds jobs as well as managing his parents' real estate, including a rental duplex in Tucson.
The bank mortgage crisis and collapsed economy left Findlay without the financial resources to cover the mortgages. In February 2012, his mother died, and he lost the family home.
"We all fall down. It's all about how we get up," Findlay said. "I'm not going to die homeless."
Follow Nanci Hutson on Twitter@ HutsonNanci. Reach her at 928-445-3333 ext. 2041 or 928-642-6809.
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