NEW YORK—Ding dong. The door snaps shut. Commuters stare blankly in silence, sans headphones, sans books, on the transitory shuttle train between Times Square and Grand Central. There is the sound of a throat clearing. Then the booming voice of Harvell Ford fills the train. He begs, but not for himself.
“Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen, and those who can’t smile,” he says. “I am a formerly homeless Vietnam veteran.”
Ford wears loose, twill khaki pants pulled high and a military green coat that is a few sizes too large. Army green earmuffs hang on his over-sized backpack.
Sometimes, he directs traffic in the train car before he begins his speech. “Further in, further in, ya’ll moving like molasses.”
Ford, 60, has been making variations of the same speech on the shuttle from 3 p.m. to 8 p.m. every day since the early ’90s.
Typically, his voice does not rouse a feeling of dread, nor does it incur that moral dilemma where one decides whether or not to believe that a fellow human being will honestly use the solicited money for food. Instead, Ford’s voice sparks a feeling of warmth and hope for many riders.
A white male in a wool pea coat makes his way to Ford and pats him on the shoulder. “Hey, Harvell, how’s your daughter doing?”
In a lumpy black duffel bag, Ford lugs around information brochures to hand out to veterans he meets on the street.
He meets about 60 veterans throughout his day, most of them during the mornings when he spends time volunteering at the Manhattan Campus of the Veterans Administration (VA) New York Harbor Healthcare System. He has spent so much time there that the VA recently gave him an official title as the information chairman of the Manhattan Veterans Advocacy Council.
The shuttle operator, maintenance crew, and men lolling around the food court greet Ford when he walks through Grand Central Terminal after his “shift” in the shuttle.
With a cane in hand, Ford walks with a frightening sense of urgency and speed. “Six of those new kids that just came home committed suicide last night,” he said.
Ford spends his days helping new veterans, old veterans, and the general population of homeless people.
With the money he was able to collect on the shuttle, Ford managed to give away 18 winter coats last year to homeless people he knew in his own loose network. When he has less money, he passes out deodorant, toothpaste, and sandwiches.
Ford knows that, for many homeless veterans and even those with homes, he could be their last hope.
He found himself homeless for 25 years in New York City, but after an almost life-ending event and a last chance given at rehab, he has pulled himself together. He currently lives by himself in an apartment in the Bronx.
Four decades after the Vietnam War, the issue of homeless Vietnam veterans still looms in America. But Ford is becoming a part of the solution rather than the problem.
He said he finds solace in helping the new generation of veterans come home to what he didn’t come home to. And as an African-American veteran in the ’70s, he didn’t come home to very much.
From Spanish Harlem to Vietnam
Ford was born in Mount Sinai Hospital in Harlem. His father was a couch maker, and his mother cared for mental health patients.
Times were tough. “I got my butt beat every day,” he said, referring not only to his parents but also the neighborhood gangs.
Ford was a Cub Scout and Boy Scout growing up. From the songs they sang, he formed patriotic feelings at an early age.
He graduated from East New York Vocational High School with a specialization in electrical technology. When he was 19, left for the war. He was among the last batch of men drafted to fight in Vietnam. He fought in the war from 1973 to 1978, when inexplicable horrors that he did not wish to speak about occurred.
“I don’t talk about it. It kicks up when you do,” he said. “But I think about those days a lot.”
After the war, he got a job as an electrician in Kentucky. When he cashed his first check at the liquor store, he recalled the cashier saying, “What’s a nigger like you making this kind of money?”
When he was driving down Route 41 South on his way home from work one evening at dusk, a car pulled up next to him and a white male in the passenger seat began shooting at him. In a frenzy, he turned around and hit the gas. He made it home in one piece. When asked how he slept that night, his face froze. “Didn’t,” he said.
There were many nights when Ford did not sleep.
After a year, he returned to New York, even though the jobs did not pay as well. Back in the city, drugs helped him slide down. He did drugs during his youth in Harlem, did more in the Army and, after returning to an environment with little support, Ford became addicted to crack.
All of his money was spent on drugs. His family slowly stopped supporting him and by 1985, he was homeless. He lived on the streets of New York for a quarter of a century.
In the ’90s he managed to get a job selling The Onion and the Daily News at Grand Central. He sold papers from 8 a.m. to noon, left to get high, and then returned to sell papers from 2 to 8 p.m.
In some ways, his schedule today is not so different from what it was back then. He said he preaches on the shuttle not only to raise awareness for a cause, but for his own redemption.
He’d been in and out of rehab for his addiction. About a decade ago, the doctors told Ford that he would soon die from kidney and blood disease if he didn’t quit drugs. It prompted him to go to rehab for the fourth time.
“It didn’t work none of the other times because I wasn’t ready,” he said. “You can’t just go to rehab. You have to be ready to want to change.”
He met his ex-wife in rehab. They had two children, but their relationship ended in divorce due to domestic violence. Ford’s 25-year-old son recently graduated from Berklee College of Music.
His 15-year-old daughter is named Hope. “I finally got off drugs because I wanted to be there for my daughter,” he said. “I have to start being the example. I can’t act stupid and tell her not to act stupid.”
The Long Road to Recovery
Ford struggles with fleeting fits of anger, memory loss, and suspicion. “If I’m still alive, you can count on me being there,” he said, when we set up a time for him to tell his story. He didn’t show up. He was still alive though, just marked the wrong date on the calendar. When he telephoned, he expressed anger and said an interview was never set up.
Ford has the dignity to admit his mental health is in a recovering process. “It takes a lot of strength to say, ‘I’m going through a mental health recovery,'” said John Tatarakis, a recovery coordinator at New York Harbor Healthcare System.
Tatarakis has been working with Ford for three years on the advocacy council. “He uses the phrase ‘my recovery,’ all the time, and that’s really brave of a veteran to say,” he said.
Other members of the council note that Ford is highly dependable when it comes to remembering what benefits veterans are entitled to, and attending meetings at the veterans advocacy council.
A Symbol of Hope at the VA
Ford consistently attends meetings with the Manhattan Veterans Advocacy Council, a group of veterans who advocate for better mental health services. He began attending meetings five years ago; sometimes he attends in the place of the chairman.
Ford sits in on administration meetings on the updates for various veteran programs. He files books and paperwork to document the progress of the council as public information.
Members of the council say he has been an invaluable source of insight in regard to the needs of veterans. “A lot of energy has gone into recent Iraqi veterans, but he’s a reminder that we don’t forget the other veterans, to include all veterans in our programs,” Tatarakis said.
He is spending the remainder of his days talking to veterans about their benefits, and lending an understanding ear to their problems. “Other veterans see him as a role model,” Tatarakis said.
“I’m just there to listen,” Ford said. “I’m gonna help them get what I didn’t get when I first got here.”
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