He sleeps in a tent, hidden in the brush. What he hears is not the chirping of birds and wind in the trees; it is the cacophony of heavy traffic, busy people unaware of the homeless man camping nearby.
Mitch (not his real name), is a 61-year-old Vietnam hero with the medal to prove it who grew up in Belleville. He said he served in Vietnam as part of the 51st Infantry from 1969 to 1971.
“It took me 20 years to get that war out of my mind,” he said. “Some days I still think about it.”
Sometime after the war, he took up farming on the family maple grove in Northern Michigan. Then came some bad choices and mounting debt. “I lost everything trying to keep everything I had,” he said.
About six years ago, Mitch was diagnosed with cancer. Disagreements with the Veterans Administration over proposed medical treatment caused him to lose the government support he could have been entitled to.
“I earned a Bronze Star over there, and I threw it at them over there at the VA. Because I went for a second opinion, because I refused surgery that they were going to give me, and I refused radiation, they say I denounced the government, and I can’t get food stamps, I can’t get SSI (Supplemental Security Income for disabled adults).”
But he still gets help at a local cancer center, he said.
Mitch lives alone with the help of handouts and a sympathetic business nearby. He dislikes the company of fellow homeless people because he believes the majority are addicts and alcoholics. He describes himself as “a dry drunk,” an alcoholic who now abstains.
Winters in the tent can be frighteningly cold. Mitch used to warm the tent by lighting candles. The situation improved when a woman gave him a propane heater.
While feeling blessed by the help he has received, Mitch is often bewildered by the disdain displayed by others. He says people have thrown things at him and that the police once cut up his tent. He says he can partly understand their attitude because so many homeless people are addicts.
Meanwhile, Mitch continues to camp out alone in the middle of a bustling city, a little tent in the bushes that he has called home for the last 5 ½ years.