Eugene Hardy Jr. stands with some of the running medals he has won recently in his apartment in Stone Mountain. He was a combat veteran, was formerly homeless, jobless and battling addition. He camped out in the woods near high school stadiums so he could run around the track and focus on getting his life back in order. Two VA programs are now helping him with a home and a job. (Photo by Phil Skinner)
Photo: Phil Skinner
Photo: Phil Skinner

Former homeless vet gets back on his feet through running, VA programs

After being homeless and jobless for almost a decade, Army veteran Eugene Hardy Jr. might just be having his breakout moment.

Two Veterans Affairs programs, along with Hardy’s own perseverance and determination, have given him a fresh start – a job and a place to live for as long as he wants.

The 58-year-old combat vet is being helped by Rise VA, a program administered by the Decatur-based nonprofit CaringWorks. It provides subsidized housing and support services for single veterans who have a disability and have been chronically homeless.

Hardy is also earning a paycheck through the VA’s Compensated Work Therapy program, in which he’s being trained as a warehouse supervisor and is on track for full-time employment.

“It’s been a long journey,” Hardy said. The veteran has had past problems with substance abuse but has been clean and sober for two years, said Rise VA Program Manager Marshall Marotte.

When Marotte first met Hardy a little more than a year ago, the veteran was living in the woods next to a metro Atlanta high school so he could have access to its football stadium track at night.

Throughout homelessness, running has been Hardy’s therapy.

For the past 8 or 9 years Hardy has been training with Back on My Feet Atlanta, a running group that helps the homeless regain independence. On the weekends, he participates in group runs through the city, but on his own, Hardy enjoys racing and training on a track.

When he was homeless, Hardy’s late-night solo laps helped him work out his demons, think about his future and keep hope alive, he said.

“I would go when it was dark and that’s where I did a little training and running and shouting and praying,” said Hardy. “I was alone and that’s what I liked about it. No one was going to come out to a high school football stadium and bother me at 2 o’clock in the morning.”

It was at this makeshift campsite in the woods where Marotte interviewed Hardy for the Rise VA program, who then immediately offered him a place to live. “I was really taken by Eugene’s story,” Marotte said. “He got his belongings and moved into housing that day.”

Hardy, who grew up in Florida, joined the Army in 1979 and served out his term. Twenty-six years later, he returned to military service and hoped to make a career with the Army National Guard. A military downsizing in 2011 left him unemployed.

“When I came home, my wife was gone, and my house was in foreclosure. That’s when the homelessness started,” he said.

At Rise, clients live in a subsidized apartment and get help with day-to-day skills. They are expected to earn an income, be a good neighbor and show up for appointments, Marotte said. Rise staff is there for support.

CaringWorks took over the Rise program this year from St. Jude Recovery Center, which had administered it in metro Atlanta since its inception in 2012. CaringWorks serves the homeless in Greater Atlanta and its client base consists of about 15% former military, said president and CEO Carol Collard.

Hardy said he has also been helped by Back on My Feet. He has participated in marathons and half marathons with the running group, and he’s now training to compete in the National Veterans Golden Age Games this summer in Wisconsin. This will be his second time participating in the games, which are for veterans 55 and older. He’s entering the 600, 400 and 200-meter track events.

Hardy said he is hopeful of getting a full-time job with the VA so he can have the means to eat better, save some money and do more with his running. He works out at a nearby YMCA and takes nutritional supplements in addition to maintaining his regular running routine.

When he was homeless, he lapped the track thinking of all the people he saw during the day who had jobs, and vehicles, and money to buy things.

“I kept saying, ‘If they could do it, I could do it.’ I kept rehearsing that in my head as I was running and running on that track at night. I was determined to have an extreme makeover and I just couldn’t give up,” Hardy said.

The last time he competed in the VA games, he took home two silvers and a gold. But “This time,” Hardy said, “I’m going for all gold.”

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