When Austin Poons graduated from high school in 1972 he probably never dreamed he would be homeless someday. Who would? But the 70s were a time when not everyone was in control of their future. The Vietnam war was winding down but there still was a draft and Austin’s draft number pretty much guaranteed he would be going into the military – so at the age of nineteen, he volunteered. This was the first life-changing milestone in Austin’s life.
Austin completed basic training and was sent to Germany for three years where he was assigned to the 59th Special Ordinance division. “It was a challenging time for a young man,” said Austin, “I was involved with missiles and nuclear warheads….a lot of stress.” Austin completed his three year military stint and returned to Minnesota with training and experience that did not fit into a post war career very well. He also had another challenge that would manifest itself as Austin grew older – post-traumatic stress and major depressive disorder.
Knowing he would have to basically start over upon returning from the military, Austin went to school to learn HVAC systems. Over the next 30 plus years Austin did what most people do – held down a job with various companies, got married and had kids, and thought he knew where his life was heading. Then the next major milestone in Austin’s life hit. It was 2010 and Austin was working as facilities manager for the Mound/Westonka school district. He was taking some time off due to extended illness when he was told that he was being laid off. It was a time when a lot of people were losing their jobs and no matter how hard he tried, Austin could not find a job. “I held on to my home for as long as I could,” said Austin. But I lost it in 2012 and that started a domino effect of personal problems.”
Fortunately for Austin he was never battling his troubles alone. One constant and reliable companion through it all has been a dog. Austin has had three of them, the most recent being a nine-year-old golden named Dutchess who has been with him through some really hard times. As Austin puts it, “Dutchess was a rescue dog that I got at the Golden Valley Humane Society and she had been badly abused. It took time for me to help her become an effective therapy dog.”
Although Dutchess had to be fostered twice when Austin was staying at shelters that did not allow pets, they always found their way back to each other. Now, Austin and Dutchess volunteer their time at the Veterans Administration assisting counselors working with veterans on suicide prevention and depression, various group homes, and the University of Minnesota main medical center where any student can come to destress on Wednesdays from 3:00 to 5:00 p.m. Austin admits, “They all love to see Dutchess stop by. Over the past five years she has helped me keep going and literally become famous around town.”
The latest milestone in Austin’s life came two years ago when Austin was staying at House of Charity in Minneapolis. It is there that he met Sara Riegle, a staff member who now works for CommonBond Communities. Sara had heard about CommonBond’s plan to build homes for formerly homeless veterans at Fort Snelling and she knew this might be the answer to getting Austin’s life stabilized and give him a base of hope for the future. “I think meeting Sara was destiny,” said Austin. “I needed a positive in my life.”
Flash forward to June of this year and Austin moving into his new home at Upper Post Veterans Community –one of the first residents in this historic development which is having a very serious impact on veterans homelessness in Minnesota. “For the first time in two years…probably more…I feel at peace. I am in a better place mentally and I love this place. Everything is so convenient – the Veterans Administration is a couple of blocks away and I have a park nearby. I feel like I am home for a long time.”
Austin and Dutchess keep a busy schedule helping others…it is through helping others that Austin helps himself. The problem is that Dutchess has become so popular around the medical centers that keeping up is tiring for both of them. But, when that happens, Austin and his best friend now have a place to rest and recover and as Austin puts it, “sit together in our new home realizing we made it through another day and enjoy the beautiful view out the window.”