Navy veteran Alex Miller used to hate Veterans Day. For five years, he had no home to call his own. He had to work at odd jobs, including at a pizzeria, to make a living. He had to sleep on a cot next to ex-cons in an NYC shelter for a year—all while battling with the United States Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to secure the medical and financial support he was entitled to. But now, Miller is a published writer with his own home doing everything possible to better the veteran community around him.
Following a rough upbringing in Chicago Robert Taylor Homes, Miller joined the Navy when he turned 18 “to escape the hood.” Studying I.T. during his service, he hoped to get a good-paying job once he left. Yet things did not go as planned. His training in the military did not translate to the I.T. industry in the civilian world as he imagined. Miller applied to jobs at Google, Apple, and IBM but landed none of them. A few months after his honorable discharge, Miller was evicted and his car was repossessed. He relied on couch surfing and bouncing around friends’ homes across Virginia, Florida, Alabama, and New York before having no one else to turn to.
Miller became one of the many homeless veterans struggling with mental illness in America. As of April 2023, there are around 40,401 homeless veterans in the U.S. and around 2.1 million veterans struggle with mental health issues, according to the National Association of American Veterans. His essay in the new anthology, “Going for Broke: Living on the Edge in the World’s Richest Country,” details his struggles with homelessness, mental health, and the VA.
After being kicked out of his friend’s Manhattan apartment in 2011, Miller was officially on the streets with no other family or friends to turn to. Around the same time, NYC’s “Snowmageddon” hit. He slept on the subway and under a bridge at one point all while still struggling with anxiety and PTSD. “I couldn’t handle the frigid, violently cold temperatures and 13-inch snow,” he said. “I swallowed my pride and moved into the shelter system.”
To stay there, he got a job at a local Family Dollar. If he did not find work, he would be kicked out, whether he was a veteran or not. “I made it out of the hood just to go right back,” he said as he recalled feeling numb to any emotions at this time.
These setbacks would not stop his drive. While working and without a home, he enrolled at The New School at the age of 25. He bounced around the shelter system in the Bronx and Queens, worked late nights, and still went to class. Barely covering monthly expenses as is, he then lost his job at the Family Dollar.
But he was saved by his writing professor Sue Shapiro. “I wouldn’t have made it in this industry without Sue,” he explained. Shapiro paid for his subway fare so that he could continue to go to class. “I was worried about him,” she explained. “He didn’t have a phone so it was hard to get in touch with him but I kept trying. He was from the Midwest like I was and didn’t have any family around or safety nets.” He worked with her to polish his writing, and in 2012 his story about his homelessness was published in The New York Times.
Miller is now a published writer for many publications including Forbes and Wired. He now lives in his apartment on the Upper East Side. He is also a fellow with the Economic Hardship Reporting Project (EHRP). EHRP’s goal is to support independent journalists covering social inequality and issues surrounding economic justice. Alissa Quart, executive director of EHRP and editor of “Going for Broke,” was the one to bring Miller in. When asked why she chose to include his 2021 Newsweek article in “Going for Broke,” she praised him as the “epitome of what we’re trying to get at at EHRP.”
However, even with an address to his name, Miller says that the VA continued to show a lack of attention toward his mental health problems. Even when given a therapist by the VA, he was forced to find an outside therapist who he believed would truly listen to his problems. To combat the VA’s unresponsiveness, Miller had to be persistent and the “squeakiest wheel.” He built personal networks with other veterans to learn about effective programs and therapies. He learned about other nonprofits, like Stack Up and Call of Duty Endowment, that “have stepped in to fill the gaps left by the VA.”
“So many people have the means to do good, but don’t,” he explained. The VA has been found guilty of corruption and controversy. In a 2019 disclosure of wrongdoing from the U.S. Office of Special Counsel, the VA was found to have wasted $223 million in “wasteful spending” instead of using that money to aid veterans. They failed to reimburse community healthcare providers helping veterans and hundreds of veterans lost care. Now the VA has laid out a new plan to house 38,000+ homeless veterans. Miller still has no faith in them. He says the VA has “failed him and other veterans” and will continue to do so.
Miller is now an advocate for his fellow veterans, paying forward all the help he received. He continues to write and speak at events so he can tell stories of the voiceless. “I’m always trying to thank somebody, because I spent so many years thinking that I’m the one. But I’m not. I’m made up of everybody else.”
Edward Jagannath is studying for a masters in digital storytelling at the NYU School of Journalism