Homeless No More
Brunswick County Homeless Coalition Board President Joe Staton has made a remarkable transition from homeless and living with PTSD to helping others in Brunswick County.
Joe Staton knows what it’s like to have no place to live. “I’ve been homeless three times,” he says. His demeanor is calm as he rolls a foam soda container around in his palms. The cap he wears proclaims DESERT STORM, and his name tag reads Homeless Coalition Ambassador.
Staton became a volunteer with Brunswick County Homeless Coalition (BCHC) in 2015 and now is its board president. “I threw myself enthusiastically into whatever they needed,” he says.
BCHC held its eighth annual Hunger & Homeless Banquet and Soup Luncheon on November 16, 2019, to raise awareness of the poverty, poor and homeless situations in Brunswick County. National poverty guidelines show a family of four making $25,750 is at the poverty level. BCHC provided figures showing that 31 percent of Brunswick County residents live on less than $20,000. Every month BCHC assists an average of 27 at-risk or homeless households. At the December BCHC board meeting, Paul Witmer explained that BCHC works with American Legion posts to assist homeless veterans.
Anita Hartsell, senior veterans service officer and department head for Brunswick County Veterans Services, says the department assists veterans in getting their appropriate benefits but refers homeless veterans to other agencies, such as Veterans Administration Health Care Center in Wilmington. She says she sees an increasing number of homeless veterans in Brunswick County who request services and says the department was able to get Staton his proper benefits. “He’s gone on helping other veterans and understands what they are going through,” she says.
Rita Canfield, a founding member of the all-volunteer BCHC, met Staton in 2014 when a group called Circles of Support assigned her and others to help Staton be comfortable around people. She explains they met once a week and talked, walked and did fun activities that helped him so he wouldn’t be alone. This continued for about a year.
“I was really fighting against PTSD (posttraumatic stress syndrome), but I was in denial,” Staton says.
Canfield says they watched him grow socially over that year. “Look at the steps that man has taken!” she says. “I admire his ability to keep focused and not get frustrated.”
“He’s very positive,” adds Beverly Isenhour, another board member.
John Callaghan, secretary of the board, pitches in about Staton’s benefit to BCHC: “If I come up with an idea, he improves it.”
Staton’s decline started in 1991 after deployments to Saudi Arabia and Iraq. With a commitment to serve six more years in the Army Reserve, he returned to Fort Stewart, Georgia, to learn that his wife had gone back to Detroit, Michigan with their young son. “I had nowhere to stay,” he says. He appealed to friends, who accommodated him for about four months until he found a job and an apartment.
Before his two years in the Army, Staton had earned college credits in computer science from Georgia Tech and Williamsburg Technical College in Kingstree, South Carolina, where he grew up. He found jobs repairing computers, providing Internet services and other “computer stuff,” he says.
He moved to Florence, South Carolina, when his Army Reserve commitment was up, yet he continued to have nightmares and a fear of crowds. At times he couldn’t get himself to leave his apartment. “I was fighting to hang on to jobs as best I could,” he says.
In 2010 he married again, and his wife convinced him to quit working and seek help with the Veterans Administration for his PTSD. She agreed to cover expenses from her paycheck, but his ailment didn’t abate and after two years, “she kicked me out,” Staton says.
He found a homeless shelter in Florence, where he stayed for about four months, until relatives in Ocean Isle Beach invited him to use their spare bedroom. He found short-term jobs, but a year later, he was again without a home when the couple he lived with split. He was back to sleeping on friends’ couches until a man he met at a laundromat in Shallotte invited him to a house he shared with friends.
“It was drugs and alcohol 24 hours a day,” Staton says, adding that he doesn’t do drugs. The group called him antisocial because he stayed in his room with the door closed. Several months passed before he heard about Brunswick Family Assistance (BFA).
At BFA, Staton saw a sign saying non-English speaking people needed an interpreter. Having learned Spanish as a volunteer at a Hispanic church in Florence, he offered his services to BFA. And this was what started his integration back into society. BFA directed him to a housing program that helped him find an apartment and to Brunswick County Veterans Services.
Staton emphasizes, as the other board members do, that besides donating to the nonprofit BCHC, people can help the homeless by volunteering. Answering phone calls, attending meetings, helping with events and speaking about what the group provides are ways to volunteer.
BCHC’s goal is to someday have a homeless shelter in Brunswick County.
“When I found out that there was no homeless shelter here, I was horrified,” Staton says. “If there was no homeless shelter where I was, I would have just slept outside.”
“[In Brunswick County] there’s a lot of prejudice against the homeless, and there’s some resistance to accepting the problem by officials,” Callaghan says. “It’s a touchy issue.”
Staton, who brought his guitar to the December board meeting so the members could sing and socialize, sees a bright future for himself. Medication tempers his PTSD, he’s able to volunteer and speak for BCHC, and he plans to marry his fiancé within a few years.
“At one time I thought homeless people were slightly creepy,” he says, but his experience changed his attitude. “They are just like anybody else. They shouldn’t be judged by what happened to them, but rather by, as Dr. King said, ‘the content of their character.’”
Want more information?
Brunswick County Homeless Coalition
P.O. Box 7411, Ocean Isle Beach, NC 28470
Monthly meetings: Second Tues., 6 p.m. Shallotte Senior Center, 3620 Express Drive, Shallotte
Photography by Brent Gallant