For 18 years, Air Force and Army Reserve veteran Kenny Epsel only had a tent to call home. After his mother passed away in 2002, the New Jersey-based veteran had fallen on hard times and couldn’t afford housing. With rising rent prices, the situation only got worse — until some caring strangers stepped in to help.
76-year-old Epsel served in the Air Force from 1965 to 1969, and later joined the US Army Reserves, according to USA Today. After serving in the reserves from 1979 to 1996, he returned home to live with his mother, but after she died, Epsel was left without a place to live. He spent most of the next 18 years sleeping in a tent near Toms River in Ocean County, New Jersey — a place where many unhoused people set up shelter. The veteran worked odd jobs to be able to afford a motel during the rough winter months, but a bicycle accident in 2015 left him unable to save enough money. That’s when Paul Hulse, the president of Just Believe Inc., entered the picture.
Just Believe Inc. is a nonprofit organization that helps people struggling with homelessness. The organization runs Toms River’s Code Blue emergency shelter, which opens on the coldest days of the brutal Jersey winters. That’s how he met Epsel. Hulse had gotten a tip from local cops about a veteran living in a tent, so he and a local council member paid Epsel a visit, and Hulse was stunned to see how the veteran was surviving. “I’ve been doing this a long time,” Hulse told USA Today. “But 18 years [in the woods] is the longest I’ve ever seen.”
After some convincing, Epsel agreed to stop by the Code Blue shelter for dinners. That’s how Amanda Mehrman, the shelter’s assistant coordinator, first met Epsel and personally took on his case. “At first he didn’t really trust us too much, which is understandable, but he did agree to come to the Code Blue center and have dinner with us,” Mehrman said. “The second or third time he came around to eat, he wound up staying with us.”
How Kenny Epsel Found a New Place to Live
With Epsel safe in the shelter and Mehrman on his case, the first priority was to find him medical care and a home. Mehrman dealt with the Veterans Administration to get Epsel long-overdue treatment for complications that stemmed from his bicycle accident. Then she got to work applying for housing grants to get a roof over Epsel’s head.
Homes Now, an agency that provides affordable housing in New Jersey, helped Amanda find an apartment in Brick, the same town where Epsel used to live with his mother. In a heartwarming turn, Epsel signed the lease on his first home in 18 years on November 10, the day before Veteran’s Day. “I appreciate it,” Epsel said. “I couldn’t ask for more. I’ve got electric heat.” Epsel’s Social Security income pays part of the rent, and resources from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development covers the rest.
Almost a month into his new living arrangement, Amanda Mehrman hasn’t forgotten about Epsel. She still visits him, and even made sure he had a warm meal to eat on Thanksgiving. “We’re not just putting a Band-Aid on it,” she said of Epsel’s past troubles.
While our country’s veteran heroes are not always treated with the respect they deserve once they come home, stories like this give us hope!