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StreetWise gave homeless veteran Russell Adams shelter from life’s storms

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Updated: June 28, 2013 6:19AM

Russell Adams joined the U.S. Marine Corps at 18, ready to escape a rough life on the West Side.

The popular and top-selling StreetWise vendor at Clark and Lake will tell you the harrowing tale of his life — full of ups and downs — if you ask.

But at 54, he’s smiling ear to ear, counting his blessings, and paying for his own apartment.

Adams is one of about 100 StreetWise employees who served time in the military — roughly 20 percent of the magazine’s workforce.

In Chicago’s 2011 homeless count, volunteers found the estimated number of veterans living on the street or in public places went up from 115 in 2009 to 250 in 2011. The number of veterans found in shelters remained relatively unchanged.

Adams grew up a ward of the state, spending time in 10 different foster homes — as he says — “with foster parents who didn’t care.” He rode trains around town at night to avoid being home, and panhandled as a teen. The military was a way out but lasted just three years.

Adams was just 10 days from ending his service in the infantry division when the Iran hostage crisis heightened: “They said you’ve got to sit tight because there might be a war,” Adams said. “I was kind of scared.”

Once the hostage crisis ended, he was sent home.

“I came back to Chicago. Why? I don’t know,” Adams said. “But if I had the choice, I’d have done 20 years in the Marine Corps.”

President Obama’s administration has recently concentrated efforts on ending homelessness for the 76,000 homeless veterans in the U.S. And part of that program involves helping veterans transition into daily life by offering resources and referrals, something Adams struggled with.

He had no experience on “how to live” and no idea how to budget money: “I had nothing. I had no family to support me, it was just me,” Adams said. “I made mistakes. I hung out for awhile, I couldn’t find a job. I turned to alcohol. I turned to drugs. And I was homeless.”

The average homeless veteran is 51 or older, male, single and living either outdoors or in a shelter and suffers from medical and mental health or substance abuse disorders, according to the Department of Veteran Affairs.

For Adams, StreetWise — where he’s worked for roughly a decade — was the way to get his life in order for good. Convinced he could no longer live on the streets, Adams joined the magazine after talking with StreetWise vendors.

“I found a location and realized I like this. People are actually buying these magazines,” Adams said. “At my age, it’s hard to find a job. This is all I got. I ran with it. I stuck with it. And I worked hard and here I am now.”

But it’s not as easy as it looks: “You get some bad days, some good days. You get some rejections.” Adams said. “But you’ve got to have a good attitude, think positive. It might be bad today but it might be good tomorrow. You have to hang in there. That’s what I did.”

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