THE ADVOCATE ASKS: Homeless veteran discusses living on Saugus’s streets and getting help from residents
Editor’s Note: For this week, we sat down with Doncristino J. Racca, who is known by his friends as “Tino,” a homeless veteran of the U.S. Army National Guard who has been living on the street the last two years, including the past year in Saugus. A loyal Saugus Advocate reader who learned of Racca’s plight suggested we contact him to do a story about his situation, in hopes that it might help him get back on his feet. We asked Racca about the circumstances that led to his becoming homeless, the daily challenges he faces to survive, the reactions he has received from strangers – both good and bad – what he’s doing to get back on his feet, what he plans to do once he finds a place to live, what he has learned from his experience, and anything else he wanted to share. Racca, 30, grew up in Revere and is a 2006 graduate of Northeast Metropolitan Regional Vocational High School in Wakefield. He said he tried to join the Marines, but was denied because of a tattoo. He said he joined the Army National Guard in 2010 and he received an honorable discharge several years ago. His military honors include Army Commendation Medal, Army Good Conduct Medal, National Defense Service Medal, Afghanistan Campaign Medal with two campaign stars, Global War on Terrorism Service Medal, Army Service Ribbon, Overseas Service Ribbon, Armed Forces Reserve Medal With M Device and Nato Medal. Some highlights of the interview follow.
Q: Tino, tell me a little bit about how you became homeless.
A: Well, it started before I left for my deployment. I was seeing this girl. She was going to school. I was working in the military, so I was the breadwinner. We had a split bank account. While I was away, she was paying the bills. We had been living together and we were thinking about getting married. When I came home, I went to the apartment and she was no longer there. Somebody else was living there and all my stuff was gone and my bank account was negative $800. My deployment money and everything I had in the bank was gone. All I had were the clothes on my back. I lost everything because of that and have been trying to get back on my feet ever since.
Q: So, you have been like this for over a year now?
A: Over two years.
Q: And how long have you been living in Saugus?
A: It’s been about a year now or a little over a year.
Q: So, you have been living in the woods?
A: Pretty much, yeah. I bounce around to different places here in Saugus. I don’t want anybody to see where I am.
Q: So, you live somewhere along Route 1?
A: Pretty much.
Q: What are you doing now to get back on your feet?
A: I panhandle. I try to pick up any odd jobs I can – anybody that I know that has something to do – maybe have their garage cleaned or backyard mowed. I go to Boston a lot to find jobs out there. I panhandle on the side of Route 1 part of the time until I can get some place where it’s warm and comfortable and I can get a shower. And that will make looking for a job easier. If I go to an interview looking the way I do, it makes it tough.
Q: Have you had any job interviews?
A: I had a couple. Yeah. I called them back. They said they had my application and would get back to me. Sometimes when I’m at an interview – and the way people look at me – I can tell right off the bat that it’s not going to happen.
Q: Just the way they look at you?
A: Yeah, I can tell. I don’t really have the cleanest of clothes or the nicest of clothes. It’s difficult.
Q: And you had been in a couple of shelters before you went out on the street? Please tell me a little bit about your experience at the shelters.
A: I stayed at the shelter in Lynn; I was there for about a week. There was a guy there who overdosed. Another broke a window in the living area to try to buy drugs from a guy who was outside. There were people stealing yourself: You had to put your things on or next to you or attached to you. Then I stayed at the New England Center and Home for Veterans in Boston. I was only there for a couple of hours, waiting in the intake area. And just laying down in the bed, I got bedbug bites. There are guys there who will steal anything you have. It’s not just all veterans there; there are sex offenders. After I saw that and got the bedbug bites there, I was out of that place. I tried another one in Worcester, I can’t remember the name. They don’t even give you a blanket or bed. It’s “Hello” and you kind of walk in with what you have, and you’ve got a spot on the floor. After those experiences, I decided I was better off on my own.
Q: Do you get any kind of benefit from the VA [Veterans Administration]?
A: I just started, finally. It took a little while. I’m getting some disability from the VA.
Q: That’s from your duty in Afghanistan?
A: Yes – mental health, and I’ve got a couple of injuries. I got tinnitus: I’m deaf in one of my ears; it’s ringing in the ears. I hurt my knee.
Q: What are the highs and lows of homelessness from your perspective?
A: The lows, I would say, are being out there in the cold, not being clean and always looking for a place to find a shower. The highs? Honestly, it’s the people, especially here in Saugus. I have met so many great people. Honestly, if I didn’t come here to Saugus and meet the people that I’ve met today, good things wouldn’t be coming now. I’m very close to finally getting off the streets.
Q: How so? What kind of generosity have you received from the people of Saugus?
A: I’ve had people who have reached out to me – people familiar with resources – they have helped me look for apartments, rooms and kind of spread my name out there on Facebook and kind of lit a fire under social media. A lot of people have reached out to me and helped me with food and some money or a home-cooked meal or a shower at their home. There’s a lot of good people out there. That’s probably the biggest high.
Q: So, you recently started a GoFundMe page? How has that worked out?
A: Well, I started one about eight months ago. I put the goal at $4,000 so I could be able to put down first and last month’s and security on an apartment. And within a couple of months, it’s reached just under a thousand.
Q: So, right now, if you get a little more, you will be able to put down a deposit on an apartment. Is that right?
A: Yes, so right now, I’m just a thousand away from moving into a room, so once I come up with that $1,000, I’ll be able to move into that room in no time.
Q: So, right now, you’re packed up. You said you had been camping at a place nearby, so you are going to be staying someplace else tonight?
A: Yes, I bounced around. I don’t like to stay in one spot too long, especially if someone knows I’m there. This is the third tent I have now. The first one I had, someone just packed it up and stole it from me with all my stuff: my sleeping bag and some clothes and socks and some food. They just took the whole tent. My second one I had, somebody came by and broke it, poked holes in the thing and cut it up and just destroyed it.
Q: Right here in Saugus?
Q: Have you ever been evicted from a campsite by the police?
A: Yeah, only because somebody complained about it. Normally, I try to stay out of sight so that wouldn’t happen.
Q: Do you have family in the area?
A: My father passed away in 2004. My mother left him when I was real young. My mother got involved with drugs and stuff like that. I haven’t had much contact with her in years.
Q: So, you really don’t have roots in the area.
A: No, I don’t. I lost contact with mother because of the drugs and really don’t want to get back in touch with her.
Q: So, for the most part, people in Saugus help you out?
A: Yeah. They have been great to me. Some people have given me a hard time – call the police or make up lies about me.
Q: So, what happened last week in an incident involving the police?
A: Last week, I sent a text to a friend. He misinterpreted what I said and ended up calling the police, saying that I was going to hurt myself, so the police came and they wanted to section me. They gave me the chance for either them to take me or for me to go voluntarily, so I ended up going voluntarily in an ambulance to go to a hospital. And they ended up keeping me in a hospital.
Q: So, this has happened a couple of times?
A: This was actually the second time that I wound up getting PC-ed [protective custody]. And a few days ago, I was out in front of Walgreens and someone called the police and said I was laying down on the ground, holding my chest and screaming in pain, so the police came. They talked to me and said they got a call and they wanted to bring me to the VA or something like that. I denied. I thought they were going to try to PC me again, but luckily they didn’t. A lot of people call and they make up stories.
Q: What’s the worst thing that has happened to you during this experience?
A: The worst thing that’s probably happened to me during this experience is, probably, people stealing a lot of the things I had. There’s been more good than bad, really. Like I’ve said, I’ve made a lot of friends. Sure, I’ve had people try to fight me, call me names, yell at me and tell me I should get a job or tell me that I’m fake or have stolen valor – people who pretend to be in the military or a veteran to steal benefits. Like I said, I’ve had people try to fight me. I’ve had glass bottles thrown at me; I’ve had drinks thrown at me, so that’s probably the worst stuff that’s happened. The rumors and stuff that people post on Facebook – bad-mouthing me and stuff like that.
Q: Sort of like the opening scene of Rambo [“First Blood”] when Rambo comes to town and gets harassed and bullied by people who don’t want him around? Because of your long hair and beard.
A: Yeah! Exactly. That explains it perfectly.
Q: Now, has anyone attacked you in your tent?
A: No. Usually, I’m pretty hidden. The only way somebody would find me is if they’re hiking, walking a dog or something like that. Nobody has physically attacked me or anything like that. Only a couple of times people have actually approached me at the tent. Once people called the police on me, and I had to pack up. Another time a family saw the tent there, yelled inside to ask if there was anyone there, then they gave me some water and money.
Q: So, what’s the best thing that’s happened to you during this whole experience?
A: The best thing that’s happened to me, I would say, are the people that I have met. Before I was homeless, I was very negative – just miserable. Once I became homeless, the experience made it seem that there’s still good left in the world and kind of changed my whole persona. I went from being a miserable, negative person to a happy, cheery person who always has a smile on my face. Even though I am in this crappy situation, I try to make the best of it. I try to make somebody else smile every day. I try to help anybody as much as I can. I would give the shirt off my back if I could.
Q: So, you do odd jobs and go to Boston to pick up work where you can get paid that day?
A: Yeah. Pretty much. I do what I can to get enough to get something to eat or some clothes or socks. I never make more than what I need.
Q: What’s the single most generous act that’s happened to you during this experience?
A: A gentleman saw me on the ramp (the Main Street ramp just before Bob’s Stores) – the on-ramp going northbound. When I was out there, the gentleman pulled up on the side, stopped and talked to me for a while. He asked me my story, and he asked me what was going on and he asked me if I needed anything. I told him I needed something to eat, so he took me out to get something to eat and we chatted, and before we left, he handed me $200 and told me to go get some food and clothes. And the next day he came back and took me to his house to let me shower. And I have met a lot of good people just through him. That’s probably one of the most generous things that’s happened to me, and that’s just one person of so many good people I’ve met.
Q: This was a Saugus person?
A: Yes, he’s from Saugus.
Q: Regular guy or retired guy?
A: Regular working-class guy – middle-class.
Q: Did he seem like a veteran?
A: No. He just has a lot of respect for the military. He told me he stopped because he saw that I was legitimate because he saw I has my VA card out and 214 form [discharge papers] on my sign. He saw that I wasn’t a fake and he had to help me, so he stopped me. And I met a lot of good people, just through him.
Q: So, do you belong to a church or house of faith?
A: I go to a couple of churches in Boston. I can shower there. I can chow there. They do a breakfast and lunch. Not too many churches here local that I go to.
Q: So, what’s been the biggest learning experience for you during the time you have been homeless?
A: Be careful who you trust – I’d say that’s the biggest one. I thought everything was good when the ex [girlfriend] and I were together – little did I know – she took all my money and up and left the apartment. I lost all of my furniture, clothes, including my dress uniform, and dog.
I learned another lesson. Don’t always believe what you read on social media. Some people say I’m a fake, drive a car and make over a thousand dollars a week.
Q: Now, are some people intimidated by you because of the beard and the long hair?
A: Yeah. I get a lot of that, just when I ask for directions or what time it is. People will ignore me or run away. I get the stares, but it doesn’t bother me anymore. I get it. It’s the way I look. It’s my persona. When you see a homeless person, it’s kind of an eyesore.
Q: What will you do with your life once you are not homeless anymore? Do you have a plan?
A: Oh yeah! Once I get a roof over my head, the first thing is to clean up and shave, get a haircut, get some nice, clean clothes and get a job. That’s Number One. The big thing is to get some work, and I plan on going back to school.
Q: What do you want to do with the rest of your life?
A: I would like to take up criminal justice. I’d want to be a police officer, but because of my past injuries, I couldn’t do that.
Q: What kind of injuries?
A: I hurt my knee, my back, I got tinnitus – ringing in my ears – I’m almost 100 percent deaf in my right ear. I got what’s called TBI: Traumatic Brain Injury. Because of that, there are a lot of things that come with it, like PTSD [Post Traumatic Stress Disorder].
Q: So, you were in the combat zone when you were over in Afghanistan?
A: Yeah. I was in Paktia, Afghanistan. It’s kind of close to the border of Pakistan.
Q: And what happened?
A: Some days are better than others, you know. One day nothing will happen, and then another day, everything will happen. I got hit by a couple of IEDs [Improvised Explosive Device] – a couple explosions at the front of the base, a couple of firefights. An IED blew up and I got a concussion from it. It was a pretty big explosion. It kind of rattled my brain a bit. That’s how I got the TBI.
Q: So, what do you want to do with your life, once you get back on your feet, if you can’t be a cop?
A: It’s possible I could do security. But I plan on going back to school. I used to draw a lot, so maybe the arts, graphic design or something like that. I enjoyed drawing a lot in my younger years.
Q: Anything else that you would like to share about your situation or say to the people out there?
A: First, I want to thank the people that I have met. [His voice starts cracking up and his eyes well up with tears.]
Q: You’re getting emotional?
A: Yeah. Just a lot of people have helped me. With all the negative things that have happened to me while I’ve been homeless, good people have stuck by me and helped me, not just with money, but with their support – emotional and mental health. I really want to thank them for everything they have done for me, because if it wasn’t for them, I wouldn’t be where I am now and in the state of mind that I am in now. Good things wouldn’t be happening because of a lot of people I’ve met. There’s two people who really stand out; I talk to them every day. Every day. And I don’t know what I would do without them right now. I call them both my guardian angels.
Q: And these are Saugus residents?
A: Yes. Saugus residents. These two are at the top, but there have probably been over a dozen that have helped me.
Fortunately, I have two guardian angels. Emotionally, they are my rocks – Julie Pulson and Kathy Whittredge – since I’ve been here in Saugus, I have known Kathie for over a year now and she’s been there for me every day. I’ve known Julie for about three months, and every day she calls or texts me. I don’t know what I would do without them. I have them to lean on no matter what – whether it’s two in the morning or three in the morning.
I get no judgments from either of them about anything. They didn’t assume anything about me – like some people who have said untruthful things about me – that I’m a drug addict, alcoholic, scam artist or fake veteran.
Q: Well, do you have a problem with alcohol?
A: As far as alcohol, when I first got home from my deployment, I was bad, but I’ve sobered up. Now I have three beers a year: on Memorial Day, on Veterans Day and on my buddy’s birthday. My buddy was killed over there [Afghanistan].
My stress – I’ve gotten it from what I’ve seen and witnessed over there. The anxiety and depression comes along with it. I have flashbacks. I jump when a car hits a pothole or backfires, or when a balloon pops. Fourth of July is the worst for me. I have to hide because of the explosions from the fireworks or firecrackers. On the Fourth of July, I try to stay inside somewhere.
Q: Do you get much support from fellow veterans?
A: Yes. Veterans in the area who know me or have heard about me have been supportive – just local vets.
Q: Anything else?
A: I’d like to thank the police force. Those guys have been great to me. They never gave me a hard time. They’ve been friendly and have helped me out as well. I just want to thank Saugus – the residents of Saugus. Some businesses have not been too good to me, but there’s been more good than the bad.
Q: So, there have been a few places that called the cops on you?
A: Yeah – fast-food places, shopping centers and at the mall. They just fear the way I look.
Q: Did anybody go after you because of the panhandling?
A: No. When I first came around, police came out there – I was on the side of the highway – and they didn’t want me to be out there because of that. They told me as long as I’m on the sidewalk and not out on the street, I should be alright. They’ll drive by to make sure I’m not in the road. They will wave at me, stop to talk to me or bring me food. They’ve treated me really good.
Q: So, what do you do in your spare time when you have it?
A: I usually walk around and talk to everybody – all the people in the good support group that I have. And I want to thank you for having me here and doing this interview and, hopefully, this reaches a lot of people and opens their eyes and shows them that not all homeless people are bad. You know, don’t judge a book by its cover; get to know somebody before you assume the worst.
Q: Before we end this interview, any special message that you want to leave for the people of Saugus?
A: I want to let all the people see the generosity of what people have done. I have received more than a simple hello. I want people to see how great people and Saugus are. This town is just a veterans-loving community. Not a lot of towns are.
God works in mysterious ways. I believe I have been homeless for a reason, and that’s to help other people in a situation I was once in. I believe that’s why I became homeless – to help others.
If it wasn’t for the generosity, care and support I received here in Saugus. I wouldn’t be as close as I am to getting into a place. I want people to see how thankful I am. My initial goal, once I get on my feet, is to sit down with homeless vets and talk to them. I’ll do what I can to help, whether it’s one person a week or month. I’d like to sit down with people in government and share what I have learned about the situation firsthand and try to put a dent in the homeless problem, to try to help these guys and girls who are homeless.
My plan is to go around and talk to them and get some ideas on what can help them, because I know what it’s like.
Q: And if people want to help you?
A: They can get in touch with me. I have a GoFundMe page and my Facebook page. There are different ways they can get a hold of me.
I have set up a GoFundMe page: https://www.gofundme.com/helpavetgetaplacetolive. People can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. My cellphone number is 781-309-0531.