Friday, January 10, 2014

The Homeless Colonel

Something about this story doesn't add up. 

As you probably know, veterans make up a disproportionate share of the nation's homeless.  In fact, the Veteran's Administration launched an emergency effort a couple of years ago to get them off the street and provide various forms of assistance.  Of course, the VA discovered what other agencies serving the homeless already know: the vast majority of those living on the streets or in shelters are not hard-working Americans who are down on their luck; instead, most have a long history of mental illness and/or drug and alcohol abuse.  For those veterans, solving their housing situation tackling the serious problems that led to them becoming homeless. 

But retired Air Force Colonel Robert Freniere doesn't fit that profile.  According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, Freniere, who concluded a 30-year military career in 2006, spends most of his nights in an old minivan, not far from the military academy where his son is a student.  Despite an impressive service resume--and multiple graduate degrees--Freniere has struggled to find work in recent years:

"After his retirement, Freniere said, it took him a year to find work. Like many retired servicemen, he turned to jobs with defense contractors. Twice, the work took him to Afghanistan, he said.

When he came home, he had nowhere to go after separating from his second wife. (In an interview, she said that he does not help her pay the mortgage on their home.)

Freniere said he had not been able to find a contracting job since August 2012. He blames the federal sequestration for squeezing contractors of money and of the confidence to hire people. He has not lasted long at other jobs, as a substitute teacher and an executive in a company writing proposals for government grants.

One of his complaints about the latter job was that it took him too far from his sons - Bobby, enrolled at a community college in Virginia, and Eric, at VFMA.

Eric, 21, plans to follow in his father's military footsteps. "My dad's the most motivated person I've ever met in my whole life, and he's living out of his van," Eric said. "A full colonel with three master's degrees? I don't get it at all - it doesn't make sense to me. If he had a job right now, we'd be fine. We're not fine right now."

Freniere says dyslexia makes focusing on a computer screen difficult. Online applications are so hard for him, he said, that tears well in his eyes as he describes his days at public libraries.

"How many applications can you fill out in a day? And it takes you six or seven hours, and then you don't hear from any of them. You start getting hopeless," he said.

But Freniere said that he had not lost hope, that he returns to tropes he learned back in survival training - "stay calm," "get the job done" - when he needs comfort."

Yet, elements of Colonel Freniere's story are puzzling.  For starters, there's the income issue; as a retired O-6, with 30 years of service, Freniere receives a pension equivalent to 75% of his base pay, somewhere around $8,000 a month.   We'll assume that his ex-wife gets half of his pension, as mandated by federal law.  That still leaves the Colonel with upwards of $4,000 a month to live on.  Sure, southeastern Pennsylvania is a high-cost-of-living area, but studio apartments aren't that expensive.  And there are plenty of extended stay hotels (like this one), which offer a room with utilities, cable TV, free internet and maid service for under $1,500 a month.   Presumably, that would still leave enough for other expenses, such as food and gas for his vehicle. 

Another odd element.  Freniere spent most of his military career as an intelligence officer and an aide to senior officials.  That means he held a TS/SCI clearance, with access to SAR/SAP programs, and tons of leadership and managerial expertise on his resume.  And, his entry into the civilian workforce coincided with one of the largest build-ups in the history of the intelligence community.  More than a decade into the War on Terror, there is still a huge demand for individuals with intel experience and an active security clearance; there are monthly job fairs in the Washington, D.C., area aimed at individuals with that sort of background.  We're guessing that Colonel Freniere has made the rounds of these events; still, it's strange that a government agency or defense contractor wouldn't snap up someone with his background and experience. 

Obviously, no two situations are alike, and everyone's circumstances are unique.  We wish the Colonel the best; no one who spent 30 years in the military should be living in a van, or in a homeless shelter for that matter.  But it sounds strange that someone with his background and experience can't find work, or afford a place to live. 

There are a lot of active duty military members, retirees and dependents who are readers of this blog.  You tell us: are we being too tough on Colonel Freniere, or is there something missing in his story?    

1 comment:

James said...

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