When Brian Christopher walked into the New England Center for Homeless Veterans in early December 2010, he had only one thought on his mind: making himself whole again. The then 49-year-old Navy veteran, who had long struggled with emotional issues as well as alcoholism, had sought out the shelter in order to heal and finally face the problems that had been plaguing him for years. But after he stumbled across a wallet containing $172 in cash during the peak of the Christmas season, the mild mannered veteran found himself facing a moral dilemma, and then a moment of sudden and surreal international fame.
To the outside world, December 15, 2010 should have been the day that turned Christopher’s life around, the beginning of a promising and more prosperous time in his life. That day, the Boston Globe featured a story that seemed to come straight out of a Christmas television special: “Man in Need Finds Wallet and Moral Compass.” The story introduced the world to Christopher as a homeless man who returned a wallet containing $172, despite having what some would describe as a greater need for the money. In the weeks that followed, media outlets from around the nation and the world focused their cameras and microphones on Christopher, turning him into an international celebrity. The mailbox at the shelter he called home, filled with hundreds of letters of support, many with donations and some even contained job offers. For weeks, the media lifted Christopher up as an unlikely Christmastime hero. But, eventually the media coverage began to ebb and public interest in the story slowly died. Christopher found himself in the same situation he had been before the wallet made him a star: an unsuccessful artist, a loving father to three children, a Navy veteran dealing with emotional problems who struggled with substance abuse, desperately trying to turn his life around. “I felt I had these issues with drugs and alcohol and I was living a life that I had trouble seeing a way out of,” Christopher explained. “I wanted to get the help for it that I needed.”
The issues facing Christopher exemplify the struggles homeless veterans face on a daily basis. According to findings from the 2011 Annual Homeless Assessment Report published by the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), there are 67,495 estimated homeless veterans on a given night. Of them, 94 percent are male, half suffer from mental illness, and two-thirds suffer from alcohol or drug use problems. Although veterans only account for 13 percent of all sheltered, homeless adults, an initiative put forth by the Obama Administration and VA announced that they plan on ending veteran homelessness by 2015. The initiative already shows promising results. Since 2009, through the efforts of the initiative, the number of veterans on a given night has dropped by 17.2 percent. In order to help promote programs that support homeless veterans, VA most recently announced the availability of $300 million in grants for community organizations, benefitting nearly 70,000 veterans and their families. Veteran homelessness continues to be a problem facing veterans today, but with the support of the Obama initiative, the problem is not as severe as it once was.
Elizabeth Doyle, the Assistant Director of Boston’s Department of Neighborhood Housing, works closely with the homeless throughout the city. Through working with organizations and agencies within and around the city of Boston, Doyle sees the success of the initiative on a first hand basis. Despite this, Doyle believes that while the goal set by the administration is reasonable, she does not think it is achievable. “I think a more realistic and achievable goal, although it doesn’t have as great of a headline as ending homelessness, is if some veteran does find himself homeless, his length of stay is a shorter one,” said Doyle. While the initiative remains successful, several factors threaten to reverse the progress made by the administration. Most shelters offer support programs for veterans needing job training, medical assistance, drug and alcohol recovery and other resources, but shelters turn away veterans with a less than honorable discharge. “That is a big stumbling block for us and for a lot of those vets who, let’s say, might have had a problem with substance abuse. They get kicked out of the military because of their substance abuse. They are not eligible for those resources that they need the most,” explained Doyle. There is also growing concern that the homeless veteran population faces a potential increase as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan finish, veterans returning run the risk of ending up homeless. According to the 2011 Annual Homeless Assessment Report, nearly 12,700 veterans returning from the conflicts in the Middle East were homeless in 2010. The report goes further to say that the number of young homeless veterans is increasing despite only constituting 8.8 percent of the overall homeless population. These veterans are in a similar situation as Christopher upon discharge, re-entering into a society completely foreign to the way they lived during active duty and some find it challenging to reintegrate especially when it comes to finding jobs.
While the laudable effort to end veteran homelessness by 2015 shows progress, critics remain skeptical. James Shearer, 49, the co-founder for SpareChange News, a newspaper run, written and sold by the homeless, does not think the Obama Administration will meet its goal. “2015 is three years from now, it is not going to happen,” explained Shearer. “One of the ways to end homelessness is to stop saying that you are going to do it.” Despite any skepticism surrounding the initiative, it continues to show progress.
For readers and viewers following the coverage, the story begins and ends with Christopher finding and returning the wallet, but his story is not as simple as the media made it out to be. For Christopher, being involved with his children’s lives ranks on par with his recovery. Despite his struggles with alcoholism, he saw himself as a dedicated, caring father of his three kids. “I was a devoted dad, the best father I could be,” explained Christopher.
With the raising of his children being the most important aspect in his life before he started his recovery in Boston, Christopher’s memory is full of milestones that he holds closely to his heart. One such memory he frequently shares with anyone willing to listen involves a moth and his middle child, Bart. “He saw this moth flying, we had these sliding doors by the dining table, and there was a moth flying by the window and he goes, ‘Look daddy, a mof,’” recounted Christopher. Wanting to make sure Bart learned to pronounce the word correctly, he attempted to get the then four-year-old to say “moth.” A back and forth ensued until Bart gave up. “Eventually he goes, ‘Look daddy, a bee.’ And everyone at the table started cracking up,” said Christopher.
The love that the veteran had for his children made his move up to Boston a struggle in and of itself, but he made sure that his experience taught his children a life-lesson. Before leaving, he made it clear to them that there is no shame in asking for help when you need it.
Christopher left for Boston around the end of the Thanksgiving holiday. Rather than putting the burden on family members both back in Maryland and in Massachusetts, he sought out the resources available at the New England Center for Homeless Veterans. “We provided housing and immediate emergency shelter,” explained Stephen Cunniff, the Center’s Director of Community Affairs. The Center also provides counseling, medical services and a free store to veterans currently living there as well as housing and employment specialists to aid veterans in reestablishing themselves into independent living. The Center, which holds over 306 beds for strictly veterans as well as emergency shelter for anyone looking for a warm place to sleep, is the nation’s first and largest veteran-oriented shelter.
Only a few weeks into his stay at the Center, Christopher found the wallet. Within two days, the Boston Globe published the story and media immediately showed interest. Unaware of the article, Cunniff arrived at the shelter the morning that the story broke to a crowd of news media. “That morning I hadn’t read the paper. I showed up and channel 5, 7, Fox 25 News, Channel 4, and WBZ’s news vans were all parked out in front and I thought, ‘Oh God, what happened,’” explained Cunniff. “I walked in the door and they all say, ‘Where’s Brian Christopher?’”
The story unfolded and coverage expanded. “It was picked up by CNN, it went national, even a British newspaper picked up on it,” said Cunniff. “It was the perfect storm of a Christmas story.” Soon, the shelter began receiving calls, emails and letters with people reaching out to both Christopher and the Shelter. The donations began to flow. The New England Center for Homeless Veterans, which receives some restricted funding from the government in order to support its various services and resources, relies heavily on unrestricted funding from donations. Christopher, while extremely reflective, thoughtful, and self-effacing, did not feel comfortable talking about donations although he continues to hold nothing but the deepest gratitude for those who showed him such generosity.
The sheer number of people reaching out and sending words of praise and support forced the shelter to bring in extra volunteers in order to deal with phone calls and emails. Fellow veterans at the shelter began to show envy about the amount of attention Christopher received. For the Center, veterans finding and returning valuables is not uncommon, happening around four to five times a year. According to Cunniff, this is due to businesses and high foot traffic on Court Street where the shelter is located.
Despite the intense amount of attention Christopher received, none of the reports mentioned the underlying reasons for coming to Boston, his struggles with alcoholism and emotional turmoil that accompanied it. In a way, the media attention fed into Christopher’s emotional struggles. “I knew I had good reasons for being where I was,” said Christopher. “There were people who I think meant well, they said things like I wasn’t like a lot of the veterans who came to the Shelter.” Christopher, while knowing he had his own problems that he had to overcome, began to question his legitimacy as a homeless veteran. The state of the other people around him only exacerbated his problem of coming to terms with his identity.
After the coverage died down, Christopher began his program for recovery. In January 2011, he moved from the ordered, militarily run routine of the Shelter, into a more relaxed and independent living situation at the Chelsea Soldier’s Home. “It was the allure of having my own room to stay in. Having my own space, having my own freedom to move around,” said Christopher. While the Soldier’s Home gave Christopher more freedom and independence, he struggled with a strong sense of both geographical and emotional isolation. “It was like being on an island,” explained Christopher. “There was nothing up there for me.” Christopher dealt with emotional isolation due to lack of connection with other residents at the Soldier’s Home. With a number of his fellow residents suffering from PTSD, Christopher had trouble identifying with their struggles.
Despite his feelings of isolation at the Soldier’s Home, Christopher continued to live there as he progressed with his recovery. He took extra shifts working at South Station as well as frequently visiting his parents at their home in Braintree in order to limit the time he spent isolated in Chelsea. While at the home, another opportunity presented itself to Christopher. Scores of people reached out to Christopher during his brief period as a celebrity, one of whom actually helped create the wallet that he stumbled across that fated day. Terrence Kelleman, 42 of New York City’s East Village co-founder the company Dynomighty Design, after being contacted through Facebook that one of the company’s Mighty Wallets was part of a news story, decided to contact Christopher.
“We were all so inspired by his story and what he did, not just for the reason of holiday spirit but just because it was a noble thing for someone in his position to do,” Kelleman said.
Dynomighty Design often involves outside artists in their wallet designs and after finding out that Christopher went to art school, Kelleman’s interest grew. “When we found out he was an artist, it seemed like the perfect match to have him come in and design something for us,” Kelleman explained.
While Christopher continued on his plan of recovery at the Soldier’s Home, he kept in close contact with Kelleman. By the summer of 2011, Kelleman caught a break in his schedule, and the two finally had a chance to meet. By November of 2011, Dynomighty announced the wallet’s creation, pointing out that half the proceeds go to a veteran’s shelter of Christopher’s choosing. The wallet’s simplistic design consists of what Christopher describes as “robotic, hybrid skeletons,” which he created after taking pictures from magazines and transforming them into his own original material. Despite Christopher’s amateur status as an artist, Kelleman saw some promise with his work.
“There are very few people that I see in either the art world or an active artist that are doing things that I can look at and say that is really cool,” Kelleman explained. “Brian’s work really covers many areas, the work that he was sharing with us with the skeletons, I found to be just completely fascinating.” Kelleman hopes to involve Christopher in further collaborations with Dynomighty.
After staying at the home for roughly 10 months, Christopher received a phone call from his brother Michael in October 2011, telling him of his recent terminal cancer diagnosis. After talking with his brother, the two decided that Christopher would move into his brother’s house located in Weymouth. Christopher lived with his brother for the next eight months, supporting him as his health declined. By June 2012, Christopher, while having nothing but love and appreciation for his brother, began to sense a separation from his other family members, especially his children. He made the decision to move back down to Maryland in order to reconnect with the family he left.
Two years since the story broke, Brian Christopher, now 51, lives on his own in Maryland. Currently unemployed, Christopher spends most of his time looking for a job. While he no longer relies on the programs provided by the Shelter, recovery is still a central part of his life, which continues to be a daily struggle, the most recent of which manifested itself as a relapse.
“I rededicated myself,” Christopher explained. “My resolve has gotten better. I’m not so unsure about my recovery now as I was six months ago. All I can do is just live in the moment and take it a day at a time.”