Sean-Christopher Riley, “Shaka” as he calls himself, may not fit the stereotypical idea of homelessness. He works as a nursing assistant. He has his associate’s degree from Montgomery Community College. He served his country as a U.S. Army airborne infantry specialist from 1982 to 1986.
But he’s homeless.
Shuffling from the couches of friends and family members to the streets of Washington, D.C. to Baltimore, Riley has no permanent residence. At 48, he recently found his way to the Maryland Center for Veterans Education and Training (MCVET), a non-profit facility providing counseling, education and employment services to homeless veterans.
Located in the old Maryland Cup Factory in the 300 block of High St., MCVET was founded in 1993 by four military veterans as a housing facility. Former Baltimore Mayor Kurt Schmoke sold them the building for $1, said Jeffery Kendrick, director of operations of MCVET.
“[The founders] realized there were guys who have served their country, come back and have no place to stay,” said Kendrick, who is retired from the U.S. Air Force.
MCVET officials said the organization has successfully graduated as many as 10,000 residents, like Riley, who now volunteers as an advocate for the homeless. He went to MCVET seeking financial assistance to return to college. His nursing assistance certification, which must be renewed periodically, had expired. His background includes some lawbreaking in the late 1990s and early 2000s, including transporting drugs across state lines when he was working as a truck driver, driving under the influence, possession with intent to distribute drugs and illegal possession of a concealed weapon.
“I’m proud of my background,” said Riley, although it keeps him from being able to apply to a nursing agency. “It shows that I have accomplished a lot in my life [despite] having a criminal record. It helps me give resources to the ones in the most need.”
Since joining MCVET, Riley has become involved with numerous homeless advocacy projects. He writes for Word on the Street, a newspaper written by and for former homeless people in Baltimore. He is a member of B’more Housing for All, a grassroots campaign of people who have experienced homelessness and their allies.
MCVET Director David T. Clements, who joined the staff in October 2012, relieving Col. Charles Williams, said he is implementing new programs to address factors plaguing vets. More than 80 percent of the vets who seek the agency’s assistance are African American, officials said.
“Vets are coming back from the military, acting out and getting incarcerated,” said Clements. “The people who best understand vet issues are vets.”
Clements, who served in Afghanistan from 2006 to 2007, understands the psychological stress that modern-day warfare is inflicting on vets, especially those serving in Afghanistan and Iraq.
“They come back and they don’t have support,” said Clements. “They are trying to…deprogram.”
Edward Malik Leese, 32, is such a veteran. Born in Gambia, West Africa, he was sent to Silver Spring, Md., to live with his African father and African-American stepmother, who, he said, verbally abused him. His father worked long hours and traveled frequently.
“I was just a lost little boy,” Leese said. “I was angry. I had an accent and I got teased and would fight a lot.”
Leese said he joined the U.S. Marine Corps after high school in 2000. He said he never imagined he would end up serving during wartime.
Then, Sept. 11, 2001 happened.
While serving, Leese recalled seeing the doctor assigned to his platoon accidently drop his pack on a land mine, causing an explosion that injured him so badly he lost his legs. “I never saw a human being get tossed that far,” said Leese.
“When I came back from the war, I kind of lost my mind and didn’t care about anything. You feel like the regular world doesn’t understand you. I felt like I didn’t fit in anymore,” said Leese, adding that he started drinking and using drugs such as Ecstasy and marijuana to cope with stress.
Clements said he also hopes to implement programs to help female vets. “No one was really prepared to deal with female vets with PTSD,” he said.
Leese and others said they hope that the MCVET program will help him get back to living a happy, prosperous life.
Riley has found a mission.
“I’m the warrior advocate for the homeless or the homeless warrior advocate, however you want to say it,” he said, referring to his nickname, Shaka, after Shaka Zulu, the African warrior and king.