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Retired gunnery sergeant provides supportive services for veteran families through Family Endeavors

Retired from the military himself, Ken Becker now works to connect supportive services for veteran families with Family Endeavors.

|March 2, 2017|
|The Globe|

To believe in people’s capacity to grow, to heal, to change, to succeed and to affect others around them is the motto Ken Becker lives by as the outreach and intake specialist of supportive services for veteran families with Family Endeavors.

Becker, retired from the Marine Corps in December 2007 as a motor transport maintenance chief after 20 years of service. The former gunnery sergeant grew up in Fayetteville, North Carolina and often reminisces about his childhood, growing up in a military community.

One of Becker’s favorite memories growing up as a military child was receiving tapes with stories from his dad, who would send them to him and his brother so they could hear his voice.

“My father retired from the Army and I wanted to follow in his footsteps. But I chose the Marines for the added challenge,” said Becker. “I enjoyed growing up in the military and the stability of it. Even if my dad was deployed we still had the military community to lean on,” said Becker. “I wanted my children to have that so that was also one of the reasons why I joined.”

Currently, Becker is responsible for conducting the initial eligibility screening of veterans who need assistance.

“I conduct outreach and networking activities in the community; such as seeking out and working with homeless veterans in shelters and in tent cities,” said Becker. “If they are eligible and wish to receive our help, I enroll them in the program. They are then assigned to a case manager who works with them while they are in the program. During their time in the program, veterans are assisted finding housing, employment, filing for benefits, registering for school, or whatever their goals might be.”

For Becker one of the most rewarding aspects of his job is running into veterans who they have helped get back on their feet. “Seeing the transformation is very fulfilling,” said Becker.

Becker credits the Marine Corps for his discipline and initiative, and chose Jacksonville to retire because this is where both of his children were born.

“We decided to stay because this is our home. I spent most of my active-duty time stationed at Camp Lejeune. This town is where my two children were born and raised,” said Becker. “My wife stayed here through my deployments and works here.”

His advice for young service members is to have a solid plan to fall back on and to set tangible goals.

“The most important step is making a plan. If you want something, find out the steps of how to get there and become something you can be proud of,” said Becker.

Family Endeavors is a national non-profit agency that provides services and practical solutions for families who have been torn by poverty and need crisis intervention.

The Veteran Services program offers homelessness prevention and stabilization services to veterans and their families. Services are provided to veteran families with very low income, veterans facing eviction and veterans who are currently homeless.


Our Jacksonville, North Carolina can be reached at (910) 459-4320.
Learn more about the services for Veteran families and counties served in North Carolina.

family endeavors services for veteran
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Veteran in North Carolina Recalls Years Spent Homeless

Thomas Lopez reflects on the 13 years he spent homeless before being connected to Family Endeavors.

|AMANDA THAMES|

|August 17, 2016|

Thomas Lopez sacrificed a college education and real-world skills in order to serve his country. But when it was time for his country to offer service in return, Lopez said he came up empty-handed.

Lopez, his wife, four children and his father had moved to Hawaii where he was stationed. While there, his father was hospitalized for multiple sclerosis and Lopez was taking time off to be with him more often than his platoon sergeant liked, he said.

Lopez, now 57, said his sergeant told him to fix the problem or he’d be kicked out. After all, he’d signed his contract and wasn’t spending enough time fulfilling it.

Lopez took an honorable hardship in April 1990 and left the Army as a sergeant, coming back to the continental United States.

It was the start of the end for him, he said.

The Army was all he knew and he felt thrown into society with no education and few skills. He and his wife had two more kids before eventually getting a divorce.

“It was the first major loss in my life,” he said.

He had a lack of income and trouble holding down a job. Depression set in.

One night he found himself sleeping on someone else’s couch and the next he was sleeping under a bridge.

Dangers of living on the streets

Lopez said he spent the next 13 years on the streets, at times digging in garbage cans for food and trying to keep himself safe.

It was a dangerous world, he said.

“You become a target,” he said. “We create an aura of fear . . . People are just mean.”

Unlike most, the homeless population doesn’t file police reports for crimes committed, Lopez said. The only time he had dealings with police officers was when they were forcing him to move his tent.

During hurricanes and major storms, he said the homeless were forgotten.

“I don’t remember anybody coming to look for us,” Lopez said.

Three of his friends died during the 13 years he was homeless. One overdosed, one’s liver was too alcohol-saturated and the third was beaten to death.

But the homeless in Onslow County are not all drunks and drug addicts who want to be on the streets.

While some may choose that life, most of the men and women out there just want help, Lopez said.

“The homeless need to be identified,” he said. “Find the ones who don’t want to be there. If they want help, they need help.”

Finding food

Every morning two questions crossed Lopez’s mind: “How am I going to eat today?” and. “Am I going to eat today?”

It was basic survival he said, pausing. He looked away, red-rimmed eyes brimming with unshed tears.

There was always something in the trash, he said. People throw away a lot of food.

When that failed he sometimes asked people to buy him food. He said he never asked for money, knowing most would assume he wanted drugs or alcohol. He asked for something every person needs for survival.

Some helped him, he said. Others completely ignored him, walking past without a glance.

Some told him to get away from them.

He went to DSS and asked for food stamps, but he said since he didn’t have a job or an address he was denied.

Many days he just chose to go without food, he said. There was always the chance someone would say no or someone would catch him at a trashcan. It was preferable, he said, to do without.

“I wanted to die,” he said. “I couldn’t even get something to eat.”

One day a young Marine found Lopez crying. The Marine touched his shoulder and asked if he was OK.

Lopez said he was hungry.

“I’m not going to starve to death,” Lopez told the Marine. “I’m not going to wait for that.”

He and the Marine sat down to a meal.

Eating with a fellow military member, being treated as a human being again, it got Lopez talking and the Marine told him there was help through the VA. He found a suicide hotline for Lopez and asked him to rethink his life.

Lopez was put in touch with OHVets and Penni Ford, a case manager with Family Endeavors, a woman who is still working to Lopez today.

Helping those who want it

Living in the woods behind a friend’s home where he helped with the lawn and other chores in exchange for a safe place to pitch his tent, Lopez received a free cell phone — a program through SafeLinnk Wireless that gives struggling, low-income Americans free cell phones, voice minutes and text messages — and kept in contact with Ford, who helped him find a home through Section 8 around March.

“I got the call saying, ‘Go sign your lease, you’re in,’” he said. “My homelessness ended.”

He was able to receive 10 percent disability through the VA to get medical care. The process took a few months, but Lopez said he was used to the “hurry up and wait” method.

In the meantime, Ford helped him with clothes, food and basic necessities like a toothbrush, though he said it was a little late on the dental end, pointing to a group of missing teeth on the left side of his mouth.

The best part was being treated like a person again.

“They didn’t degrade me, humiliate me or talk to me in a way that was less than human. I was treated with respect,” Lopez said.

Ford also kept him up-to-date on progress so he knew what was happening. He was still living outside at the time, but said it had been 13 years — a couple more months would be okay.

Homelessness is like “life is attacking you,” he said, whether that’s a person or the elements. There are no permanent shelters from the rain, hail or lightening, no air conditioning in 100 degree weather, no heater when it’s below freezing.

Lopez asked that people think about this when they see a homeless person.

Be kind, he said.

Just treat others as the humans they are.

“Don’t cross the street when you see me, like I have the plague,” he said.

Editor’s Note: This is part two of a three-part series looking at homelessness in Onslow County. Jacksonville Daily News
This story also appeared in Stars and Stripes.

Veteran Reflects on Homelessness
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