Marine vet spending month on Uniontown street, targets plight of homeless
It took a group of second-graders to bring a combat-hardened Marine nearly to tears.
“These kids were bringing me their lunch money, telling me to give it to the homeless,” said Brandon Rumbaugh of Uniontown, a 26-year-old retired Marine Corps corporal who lost his legs to an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan while fighting the Taliban in 2010.
“They got it, as young as they are,” Rumbaugh said of how grade-schoolers at Lafayette Elementary-Middle School reacted when he told them last week about his effort to raise awareness of homelessness by living at a main intersection in Uniontown for a month.
“It almost made me cry,” Rumbaugh said Monday morning.
A cot and sleeping bag will serve as his monthlong “home” on George C. Marshall Memorial Plaza at Main and Fayette streets. “If these kids have it figured out, why don't we?”
Rumbaugh's effort began Nov. 1. He is trying to live as close to homeless as possible. Although a tent is pitched nearby for short-term storage of donated food and other items, he sleeps at the base of a statue of a rifle-toting Gen. George Marshall, a Uniontown native who was among the top military leaders of World War II.
“I'm not actually going through what homeless people go through,” Rumbaugh said, describing their plight as “a million times worse” than his monthlong campaign. “I have people bringing me stuff. That person who's really homeless, they might not eat for a week.”
Although the most recent figures available through the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development show homelessness has fallen by 11 percent since 2007, an average of 578,424 people are homeless on any given night. Of those, nearly 50,000 are veterans.
Rumbaugh said as visitors began to stop by the plaza — more than 1,000 did in the past four days — his goal to raise awareness of the homeless quickly evolved. He's now encouraging others to work toward bettering their community as a whole.
“It's for the homeless, but there is a bigger picture,” Rumbaugh said. “We want people to come down, with the overall goal of establishing a network, where, if something happens in the community, people know who to rely on.”
Rumbaugh said he wants to inspire visitors to establish a word-of-mouth network to direct resources to those who find themselves in need, such as a family who loses their home to a fire. Rumbaugh said such a network doesn't have to be dependent on monetary donations.
“People have said to me, ‘I don't have a lot of money, but I want to help,' ” Rumbaugh said. “They've said, ‘I might not have $100, but I can donate my time to repair houses or help in other ways.' ”
A motivational speaker by trade, Rumbaugh said he planned not to accept any speaking engagements, or even use his cellphone, while living homeless through midnight Nov. 29. That changed when visitors asked him to take his message public, including the request to talk to the schoolchildren at Lafayette, he said.
“We found a way to make it work,” Rumbaugh said. He arranges with volunteers to drive him to the speaking engagements, then return him to the plaza.
Rumbaugh said he undertook the awareness campaign to give back to a community that helped him when he returned to Fayette County in 2012 afterhe was wounded.
In 2014, Rumbaugh was presented the keys to a home in Uniontown from Taunton, Mass.-based, Homes for Our Troops. The four-bedroom house with a two-car garage is outfitted with 155 adaptive features, including lower countertops, thermostats, windows and light switches.
“I've gotten a lot of support from everybody,” Rumbaugh said. “It's time to pay it forward.”
Liz Zemba is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-601-2166 or email@example.com.