WASHINGTON — Michael Strong was stranded, barely staying alive on the bustling streets of metropolitan Baltimore for five years. The South Carolina native and Air Force veteran was homeless because of his addiction to cocaine and alcohol. He even feared for his own life on a few occasions.
“It was one night, actually sleeping on the streets in a doorway, and a guy comes up, and he’s got a knife in his hand. He says, ‘Get out of my house.’ That scared me to death,” Strong remembered about the incident in 1995.
Encountering a life-threatening situation was traumatic but not too abnormal for homeless veterans like himself.
“After that, no more staying in doorways,” Strong told Capital News Service. “At the time, I was working at Blue Cross Blue Shield. That’s when I started using the buses and the subway. Once you got paid, you’d go get a monthly bus pass so you could just ride. As long as you have a pass, they can’t bother you.”
After decades of struggle, he’s no longer spending nights sleeping in the streets. Now Strong is helping homeless veterans find shelter at a place a little more than three miles south of the United States Capitol.
For Strong, much of his life has been a circuitous route through achievement, reverses and battles with debilitating addiction.
Upon graduating from Marlboro County’s Wallace High School in 1980, Strong enlisted in the U.S. Air Force. He served as a data systems analyst, co-writing one of the first computer programs replacing key-punch cards.
Strong traveled across the globe for eight years until leaving the service after writing a few bad checks as a noncommissioned officer. He was in debt and already had a substance abuse problem. Rather than receiving a court martial, Strong scraped by with an honorable discharge since he had a spotless record otherwise.
While Strong still found success working high-profile jobs while transitioning back into civilian life, he couldn’t escape his struggle with a nearly life-long addiction, which he says began after drinking his first alcoholic beverage at the age of eight.
Working as a network administrator for the Baltimore City Health Department, Strong got busted for stealing company computers and flipping them to feed his drug habits.
He received a lenient sentence of unsupervised probation for six months and was ordered to pay restitution for all stolen equipment. But he was fired from his job.
Three months later, on Aug. 22, 2002, he woke up one morning inside the basement of a crack house in the inner city. That’s when he decided to change his life.
At the age of 41, Strong entered the Maryland Center for Veterans Education and Training on High Street in Baltimore, a transitional housing program funded by the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs. With only $3.47 to his name, he stayed there for 33 months, enduring nearly three years of detoxification and receiving intensive counseling.
Strong’s struggles with alcoholism cost him 13 years of close contact with his ex-wife LaDonna, his son DeMarkco and daughter Sade. They were reunited shortly after his release from the facility in 2005.
“I took my daughter and my son to school on the first day, but after that, it was a blur,” Strong recalled. “So, by the time I got back in my kids’ lives, my daughter was 16, and my son was 18.”
James Mett, a former sharpshooter during the Vietnam War, was also a junkie, but quickly became Strong’s mentor. He helped (me) find a positive path forward. To this day, Strong still believes the best approach in any counselor’s book is simply meeting clients where they are — maybe even sharing a story or two about the counselor’s own struggle.
“The truth is, my counselor told me his story, and that motivated me,” Strong said. “It was the drugs and the alcohol and along with crime; it all came together prior to homelessness.”
Strong has been sober for nearly 18 years. He is now the program manager at the Chesapeake Health Education Program’s D.C. Vets, a transitional housing center along Sixth Street in Southeast Washington.
Established in 1990, the Chesapeake Health Education Program is a nonprofit based in Perryville, Maryland. The organization says it believes in “communities helping and empowering patriots,” bringing about financial, mental and emotional stability by maintaining transitional housing centers. In addition to its Washington facility, the program operates facilities in Perry Point, Maryland, and Charleston, South Carolina.
Since its opening in 2012, D.C. Vets has helped 181 veterans, 168 of whom were successfully discharged from their traditional housing program. Most of those served were people of color.
But even with all of the resources and services at their disposal, some veterans still slipped through the cracks and couldn’t secure any permanent housing arrangements, Strong said.
“Veteran homelessness is just a microcosm of the society at large,” he added.
Decades after his days in the Air Force, Strong now serves as the center’s acting program operations director, case manager and marketer. A man of many hats, he still wears his navy blue Air Force veteran baseball cap with pride.
In 2013, Strong self-published a memoir: Strong Getting Stronger: An Inspiration.
“Going inside meant I had a problem, and it’s not easy to admit you’ve got a problem,” Strong wrote. “I finally mustered the courage to go inside, which, as it turns out, was only half the battle.”
Whenever he meets fellow veterans, Strong insisted, no one ever believes he used to be a homeless cocaine addict.
“They didn’t see the guy that was lying in the dope house or the guy who had to sleep on the streets, had to stay on the subway all night long or take the longest bus run in Baltimore City so that he could stay warm,” Strong said.
He hopes his story motivates his fellow veterans, brothers and sisters bound by blood and service to their country. Veteran homelessness persists, despite government efforts to address it.
As of January 2020, about 300 veterans were struggling with homelessness in the District of Columbia on any given day, according to a report sent to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The report also said that there were as many as 464 homeless veterans in Maryland and 395 in the neighboring state of Virginia.
It’s not always obvious who the veterans are among the broader, declining populations of homeless people in Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia, Strong said.
“When people see homelessness, they don’t really know what they’re seeing,” he said. “Nobody thought I was homeless.”