Grateful veteran gives back to Milford shelter

lonnie farmer resident
lonnie farmer resident

MILFORD >> Marine Corps veteran Lonnie Hailey has struggled 45 years with drug addiction and homelessness, but he learned in the Marines to “never give up.”

So at 66 years old, he’s finally fulfilling his dreams.

Hailey, one of 43 veterans admitted in 2016 to Beth El Center’s homeless shelter, was placed in his own apartment in New Haven three months ago.

He has earned an associate degree in recent years and is working on a bachelor’s at Southern Connecticut State University on his way to a doctorate.

Hailey, who said he’s “forever indebted” to Beth El, is so grateful to be where he is in life that he donated a new American flag and pole, displayed in front.

It was his job during two long stays at the shelter to put the flag out in front each day and bring it in at dusk. He noticed it was on the way to being tattered.

“We are so very happy that he chose to show his appreciation and patriotism in this way,” said Beth El Center Executive Director Toni Dolan.

“Lonnie is a role model for those in our shelter because of his determination to move forward, his ambition to pursue educational opportunities, and his positive attitude,” she said.

Program staff members work daily with the veterans in a collaborative way in cooperation with the Veterans Affairs hospital, Errera Community Care Center in West Haven, and Support Services for Veterans and Families.

State officials and local providers believe the state will be prepared to announce an end to chronic homelessness within its borders by the end of this year.

“While we can’t begin to repay the veterans for their service, we can provide caring support to help ease the physical and psychological hardships they may be experiencing, and to provide resources and referrals to assist with their goals to self-sufficiency and independence once again,” Dolan said.

Hailey, who had plans to attend the University of Michigan after graduating from James Hillhouse High School in New Haven, was drafted soon after graduation because he didn’t go right to college.

After six months serving, he received an honorable discharge because of stress fractures in his leg. It was the Vietnam era.

He returned from the military and worked, but began losing friends to Vietnam, and watched others come home injured. Soon, he took drugs to dull the pain, and addiction got its grip.

Through the years, he worked, had two children, now adults and college graduates. But the addiction progressed and receded through the years. The cycle defined Hailey’s life and at many junctures, he was homeless.

Hailey said he was caught up in what he calls the three H’s: “Helplessness, Hopelessness, Homelessness.”

He slept in hallways, slept outside, sometimes on the couches of relatives or friends, but the drugs always got in the way when it was the latter.

Hailey said he used drugs for 18 years, was clean for five years, then it got him for another 15 years until he cleaned up again about a year ago.

“I got tired of being sick and tired,” he said, acknowledging that it’s still a struggle. “I was tired of not achieving my goals.”

Not knowing what to do, he went to the VA and was led into all the positive programming he’s received, Hailey said.

Even through homelessness, Hailey studied and completed his associate degree at Gateway Community College in 2014. He is at SCSU and expects to graduate in spring 2018. His goal is to get a doctorate.

Hailey said he likes the interactions with traditional students.

“They keep me young; they keep me in the know,” he said. “I love learning.”

Hailey said he had the importance of education and giving to others instilled in him by his mother. She used to tell him he should be able to “sit on the curb and talk to a bum,” but also able to “go to England and talk to the Queen,” and communicate with everybody in between.

Hailey said Beth El and the other agencies working with him to get him a home were life savers. He loves his apartment on Chapel Street.

He said Beth El and his case manager “bent over backwards for me,” at every turn.

Shelter officials said that during his stay, Hailey also had to cope with the loss of two siblings a month apart and maintain wellness as he suffers from physical ailments.

“I’m so grateful,” he said. “They’ll always have a special place in my heart.”

Hailey said he enjoys seeing people smile, and as down as he’s been at times through the years, he has always tried to help others.

He uses his own situation to encourage others who may be thinking about giving up by saying, “If I can do it, you can do it.”

“It’s been a long journey, but I never give up,” he said.