• A homeless vet living In the shadows

    By: Bob Ward

    Updated:

    BOSTON - I live, and work, in an area of high-end shopping, fine dining, and expensive homes.

    But just five miles away from where I show up for work every single day, there is a completely different world.

    It is the world where John DeGraff, a U.S. Navy veteran lives.

    You can find John's world in the woods, just over the city line, in one of Boston's neighborhoods. 

    "Every day, I try to grab three or four bundles out of the woods, " John told me as he scurried about, picking up twigs and branches. 

    Once he collected an armful of firewood, John took me a few hundred yards deeper into the woods, to what appeared to be a giant pile of tarp. 

    But this was no scrap heap. This was John's home. 

    And it has been his home for a very long time. 

    "This is my 11th year. I've got my 12th year coming up, " John told me as he showed me his be: a collection of sleeping bags and quilts stack on top of wooden concrete forms.

    That's right. John DeGraff, a US Navy Veteran, has been living in a homemade tent, in the woods of Boston, for eleven years. 

    "There isn't a veteran who should be living under these conditions," Mike McNulty, the founder of Disabled and Limbless Veterans told me. "These are guys who fought for their country. Why are they in a situation like this?"

    Mike McNulty and organization president Dom Marcellino introduced me to John.

    They are both Vietnam Veterans. 

    Dom is a triple amputee; he lost three of his limbs in action in the Vietnam War. 

    "You wouldn't believe he is living like he is living, Dom said. "In the middle of downtown Boston, it shocked me."

    It shocked me, too. 

    John gave me a little tour of his living quarters. Tucked into the corners of his tent are his food supplies, clothes, pots and pans.

    In the middle of the floor there is a fire pit. 

    John vents the smoke through the roof of his tent, but there is soot everywhere.

    And in the few moments I was inside the tent, I found it difficult to breathe.

    The fire pit is inside the tent, just steps from John's bed.

    "I've gone to sleep with a roaring fire, no problem," John said. 

    "You're not worried?" I asked. 

    "No."

    "You're not worried that fire could catch, and this could kill you?"

    "No, not all, " John replied.  

    Mike and Dom are helping John and others like him. They estimate there are up to two hundred other John DeGraffs living in the woods of Massachusetts, or living in cars, invisible to most of us. 

    "They're out there," Mike explained. "A lot of these guys don't want to go to the shelters."

    "He won't roll over and surrender that's basically what it is," added Dom. "We still see people fall through the cracks, just for the fact that they are stubborn they are self-sufficient. They are proud and they won't put their hand out for anything." 

    That's John DeGraff. As we stood by his tent in the cold, John made sure he told me, "I don’t get a dime from anything. I don’t get food stamps or anything."

    Mike and Dom are keeping an eye on John DeGraff. They visit him and bring him food. But they are also doing more. They are taking him to the VA, to whatever government assistance is available. They are trying to get John into the system and out of the woods. 

    As for John, he seems ready.

    "How do you feel about being out here in the woods for 11 years?" I asked John. 
    "I don't know," John said. "It'd be nice to be inside."

    Mike and Dom are working on finding John a place to live. It's not easy, but they are trying. And, it seems, John is trying too. 

    They truly are veterans helping other veterans, and leaving no one behind.

    If you would like to learn more about Disabled and Limbless Veterans, or to help them out with a donation, go to www.dlvets.org.

    Update: Feb. 12: DeGraff has left the woods and is now living at the Massachusetts Bay Veterans Center in Somerville.

    Next Up: