News

A midstate homeless vet's 'constant battle' to survive

Written by Vicky Taylor/Chambersburg Public Opinion | Dec 14, 2015 10:33 AM
James-Keet_veteran.jpg

James Keet walks through a hotel hallway, Saturday. The homeless U.S. Navy veteran has a room at the local Chambersburg hotel thanks to assistance from the VA's Supportive Services for Veterans Families program.(Photo: Markell DeLoatch/Public Opinion)

(Chambersburg) -- James Keet is nothing if not a survivor, but thanks to a group that helps homeless veterans, he is now looking at a life that is more than just surviving.

Keet has already spent 18 years of his life homeless and without direction, yet never giving up hope that someday, somehow, life would get better.

"Ya (sic) know, I have been in a constant battle trying to get my life back," he said this month, admitting his lifelong struggle battling alcoholism has left him at times living in abject poverty.

He calls the path out of homelessness and into a more stable living situation "a long and winding road."

Now, with the help of Supportive Services for Veteran Families, a Veterans Administration program, the 53-year-old Keet is trying to get the help he needs to make the necessary changes that would make it possible to live as a functioning, contributing member of society.

SSVF is designed specifically to help homeless vets and their families, providing temporary housing and steering them to the medical and mental health services necessary to make the lifestyle changes that will take them out of the homeless category and put them on a path toward productivity.

Keet is currently being housed at a local motel while SSVF works to get him the help he needs to overcome 18 years of homelessness.

Keet's is a story of a long path down the road that eventually led him to a nomad lifestyle that included some productive years in the work force, and even a six-year failed marriage, but many more years as a homeless man living hand-to-mouth, building temporary shelters in the woods, fishing and hunting small game and looking for edible plants to survive.

Today, Keet talks about years of living outside, building lean-to shelters for protection from the elements, once wrapping himself in a heavy construction-type garbage bag and hunkering down by a large fallen tree to spend an especially stormy, cold night out in the elements.

One year he got what he now calls a "wild idea" of building a log cabin in the woods near Carlisle using an ax and a bow saw to cut up fallen trees for building materials.

"I got money from a friend (for the tools) and built a fireplace with rocks for cooking and to keep warm," he said.

He finally got the enclosure walled in to the extent that it provided some protection from the elements. The next year, he even started a garden.

By the next year, Keet was again looking for a place to lay his head, as well as shelter from the elements. He decided to move to the Pine Grove Furnace area above Bendersville Road, and built a lean-to against a large downed Jack pine.

"I ate fish, drank sassafras tea, found wild edibles that I read about in survival books, and built small fires for cooking and warmth," he said.

He lived there three months before moving on, constantly trying to figure out how to make the homeless life work for him. Whereever he went, whatever the form of shelter he devised, he lived off the land, using a fishing rod and a compound bow to fish and hunt small game to feed himself.

He remembers one time in 2005 when he had a fire going and was getting ready to cook some bass he had caught.

"It was around dusk and this coyote pack came investigating," he said. "I had a fire going and I was in a good location with 20 yards of grass around me."

Beyond that was thick brush, and Keet said the next thing he knew the coyotes were in the thickets, circling, waiting for an opportunity to attack. He said he had enough wood cut to build a large enough fire to scare the pack off.

Two days later the Middlesex police found him and told him to leave. He was trespassing.

By 2007 he was living in a tent on a farmer's land along the Conodoguinet Creek. The next year, still homeless, he moved the tent to another location, then the next year, he built another lean-to in the woods, this time near a campground where he had gotten a job as a maintenance worker.

"I had an open fire pit for cooking and warmth, and a small battery-operated radio for company," he said.

One evening he was at the lean-to getting ready to fix hot dogs for dinner when he heard on the radio that a hail storm and possible tornado were heading his way.

"I looked to the west to Shippensburg and the sky was black," he said. "I picked up every tool and object I could and put them into my lean-to then wrapped myself tight in blankets and hunkered down (to wait out the storm)."

At one point, he peeked out through the blankets and watched the sky turn orange, then green, then purple.

As he often did over the years, he prayed.

A faith in God and prayer had been his go-to solution over the years as he battled alcoholism and coped with what had become a homeless lifestyle.

"I give God the credit for not giving up on me even though at times I'd go into my funk and not care, or wave my fist in the air and ask 'why,'" he said.

Today, he says he knows there was a reason for each season of his 18 years of homelessness.

Keet hadn't always been homeless. He enlisted in the Navy following graduation from Big Springs High School in 1982, hoping to follow in the footsteps of his Navy veteran father, Richard Keet.

He served as a cook aboard the USS Yellowstone AD41 out of Norfork, Virginia.

He admits to drug and alcohol problems during that time. He said that he foolishly asked for an early out, something he still regrets.

"I really messed up," he said. "But I did learn many values (in the Navy)."

His entire post-Navy life hasn't been spent in homelessness either. At times he held jobs -- first a four-year stint working for his brother, later at a ski resort where he was seriously injured in an after-hours skiing accident, another time at Wilson College and still another at a discount store chain.

He married in 1999 and lived in a mobile home in Cumberland County with his wife, who owned the home, then became homeless again in 2005 after the marriage ended.

Twice he tried to find purpose by hiking the Appalachian Trail.

"I'm at a point in my life where I want to turn things around, but I haven't been sure how to go about it," he said.

He hopes SSVA and its programs can help him do just that.

He said his vision today is to help others who have been in his shoes, perhaps as a counselor or as a volunteer somewhere.

"I would really love to open a homeless shelter for vets, something like a halfway house where they can come in and get a shower and be fed," he said.

Vicky Taylor, 717-262-4754

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