Inland Empire homeless advocates help veteran return home after living on streets for decades

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A group of volunteers helped a homeless San Bernardino veteran find and reunite with his family in South Carolina after more than 30 years apart. (KABC)

Karen Ickes said people do not realize how bad the plight of homelessness is. She described the scene at Seccombe Park in San Bernardino as sad and dangerous.

"At night you don't know if you're going to get robbed," she said through tears. "A lot of them have low self-esteem. They don't feel like they're human anymore."

Eyewitness News experienced it firsthand. People slept on the ground. Shopping carts were filled with belongings. A homeless encampment can be spotted across the street, with a tent set up in the corner of a field.

That is where Ickes recently met Obadiah Smith, a veteran who was homeless for decades. But now - he's home.

"I get chills every time I talk about it," Ickes said. "It's just very inspirational."

Ickes was conducting a routine count of San Bernardino's homeless population in January. Seccombe Park was in the zone she was assigned to cover. She said Obadiah Smith was camped out near the rotunda.

"He said he didn't have any food stamps, no medical (coverage)," Ickes said. "He said he was having issues with his feet."

After briefly speaking with him, she turned to leave and continued her survey. But said something made her want to go back.

"I walked away but something drew me back, and I said I need to help this man," she said. "We're not supposed to help them when we're doing the count, because if we were to help all of them we wouldn't get the count done."

As she spoke with Smith, she learned he'd been dishonorably discharged from the Marine Corps, and had been living on the streets for two decades. He said he couldn't afford to live and didn't want to be a burden on the system either.

"He told me he didn't want to be on food stamps or medical (assistance) because he didn't want to be dependent on anyone," Ickes said. "He didn't want to be a burden to anybody."

He also hadn't seen his family in more than 30 years. He didn't even know how to find them. But Ickes told Smith she would help him. That's when she called another homeless advocate. Danny Marquez helps run Veterans Partnering With Communities, Inc. in Fontana.

"When I approached him, he was lying down in his sleeping bag," Marquez said.

Ironically, Marquez said help for Smith was waiting just a block away from Seccombe Park at Veterans Affairs for San Bernardino County.

"That's not uncommon for veterans," Marquez said. "Even those who aren't homeless...they don't know where to start."

From there, advocates began helping Smith obtain the services he needed to get back on his feet. It turned out, his dishonorable discharge had been changed to an honorable discharge through the VA. Now it was just a matter of finding Smith's family and reuniting them. A case manager at Lighthouse Social Services set out to find them.

"She was able to find, in South Carolina, a listing of all the different names (of Smith's family members)," Marquez said.

Upon trying to call the phone numbers of the people on the list, she made contact with one of Smith's sisters.

"And they said 'You have our brother?'" Marquez said. "They were astonished. And she (asked if they) want to talk to him, and of course she said yes."

Another advocate then donated frequent flyer miles to help Smith get back to his family. This Memorial Day weekend, he is back home in Bennettsville, South Carolina.

"He's like the prodigal son," said Smith's brother, Spencer Smith. "He went to a foreign country, and he's now returned home."

But Obadiah Smith said it wouldn't have happened without the help of so many homeless advocates in the Inland Empire. In fact, he now considers them family.

"We have two families," Smith said. "We have a California family, and my blood family back here, and that's a blessing."
Related Topics:
societymemorial dayveteranreunionhomelessvolunteerismSan BernardinoSan Bernardino CountySouth Carolina
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