Two years ago, while living under a bridge in Cobb County, Rick Twist knew he had to make a life or death choice: Seek treatment for substance abuse or die.
The decorated veteran of the Iraq War found himself at rock bottom, homeless and suffering from alcohol and crack cocaine addictions.
Twist served for nine months in Baghdad, Iraq, in the U.S. Army. He was discharged after failing a urine test and was not eligible for benefits through the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
“I just could not fathom living like that for another year much less another 20 or 40 years,” Twist said. “I had to ask myself, ‘Do I want to live or do I want to die?’”
That’s when Twist found himself at The Extension on Church Street in Marietta, looking for help.
It’s a United Way state-licensed residential treatment center that provides counseling, therapy and job training to formerly homeless Cobb residents suffering from substance abuse.
The Extension’s program for men has 47 beds. The woman’s program has 20 beds. Residents attend job-training classes, and counseling and work full-time jobs in the community.
Twist credits the program with saving his life and says he knew it was the place for his recovery as soon as he walked through the door.
“After about five minutes of me explaining my story to (the director), he said, ‘Stand up’ and came over and hugged me and said, ‘Welcome home.’”
Homelessness a problem in Cobb
Substance abuse and homelessness is a bigger problem in Cobb than most realize, said Tyler Driver, executive director of The Extension.
“It became obvious to us early on that homelessness was not a problem near as much as it was a symptom of a problem,” Driver said.
That prompted an expansion of the program in 1995. What was once the Marietta-Cobb Winter Shelter, providing temporary emergency housing, became The Extension for men. The program was expanded again in 2009 to include housing for women at a separate campus.
“We realized that we were seeing so many of the same faces every winter and if not seeing the same faces, hearing the same stories,” Driver said.
Residents of The Extension stay for about a year and aren’t asked to pay anything until they secure a full-time job.
“Too many” of the people that come through the doors at The Extension are veterans, Driver said, estimating about 25 percent of the residents they help have served in the military.
The Extension serves a broad range of age groups, Driver said, but more young veterans of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars are making their way to the program.
“The things that they have seen and things that they have done as part of keeping the rest of us free and safe has caused a lot of trauma,” Driver said. “Anybody who experienced that level of trauma copes the best they can, and for many of them they felt like drugs and alcohol were the best remedy and, of course, that’s not a remedy.”
Cobb’s homelessness problem is only made worse by the perception there isn’t a problem, Driver said, and that the homeless are somehow only a population that exists in urban centers.
“Of course we live in a very affluent area, but we should all understand that there are people who are struggling, there are people who are homeless, there are people who can’t afford enough to feed themselves, so there are some systemic problems in this community despite its affluence,” Driver said.
Metro area homeless twice as likely to be veterans
Homelessness in metro Atlanta is nearly twice the national average for veterans, according to the 2013 U.S. Census. In the metro area, 21 percent of the homeless population is made up of veterans. That number is just 11 percent for the national average.
Just about 32 percent of homeless veterans in metro Atlanta receive services although Veterans Affairs, though more than 80 percent are eligible, according to the United Way.
The Extension is just one part of a larger effort aimed at helping homeless veterans get back on their feet.
The United Way supports a program called Vets Connect to let veterans know about the resources available.
Protip Biswas, vice president of United Way’s Regional Commission on Homelessness, points to other regional agencies that also work to end homelessness, like MUST Ministries and the Marietta Housing Authority.
“It’s not like there’s nothing in the communities; that’s a common perception,” Biswas said.
But Tyler said veterans can’t turn their lives around without community support, and it’s important to appreciate the work veterans do overseas and support them upon their return.
And returning is not an easy transition.
“I couldn’t get a job for 18 months and I had just returned a decorated war veteran,” said Twist, who returned from Iraq to his hometown of Tampa, Fla., in 2008 where the unemployment rate was 27 percent.
He moved to Cobb in search of better opportunities.
Twist felt like he was tossed into combat and “used and thrown aside” and “demoralized.”
A year after leaving The Extension, Twist returns often to volunteer and serves as a sponsor to some of its current residents.
“Everything has just fallen into place,” Twist said.
His time in recovery strengthened his relationship with his 17-year-old daughter, Kiana, who lives in Tampa, and renewed his spirituality.
“We’re 450 miles apart, but we’re closer than we’ve ever been,” Twist said.
He now works in the cafeteria at WellStar Kennestone Hospital and just completed his first semester at Georgia Highlands College with a perfect grade point average. He is studying psychology and wants to become an addiction counselor.
“I want to make myself available to help everybody,” Twist said.
By the numbers
* 21 percent of the homeless population in metro Atlanta is made up of veterans
* 11 percent of the homeless population across the nation is made up of veterans
* 32 percent of homeless veterans in metro Atlanta receive Veterans Affairs services
* 80 percent are eligible for Veterans Affairs services
What is the extension?
u A United Way-funded state-licensed residential treatment center that provides counseling, therapy and job training to formerly homeless Cobb residents suffering from substance abuse. It’s at 1507 Church St. Extension, Marietta. Contact The Extension at (770) 590-9075.