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From a bunker to back on track; With VA's help, Rounds is getting off the streets

After living for years in cardboard boxes, makeshift tents, junkyard trailers and even an underground bunker, Clarence O. Rounds is thankful to be back on society's grid.

Homeless for most of the past decade, the 51-year-old Rounds is eagerly awaiting his move to a real home -- an apartment off Buffalo's Elmwood Avenue that will be paid for under a U.S. Veterans Affairs program for homeless veterans.

"My advice to any other homeless veterans is, go to the VA and apply for help. There are programs that can help you," said Rounds, who currently lives in a transition home run by a not-for-profit group. "Living on the streets is no way to live. Terrible things can happen to you out there."

If Rounds' name sounds familiar, that is because -- for a brief time in 2007 he may have been the most famous homeless person in America, his story chronicled in The Buffalo News and picked up by media outlets all over the nation.

In May of that year, Buffalo firefighters found Rounds living in an underground bunker, 6 feet deep, that he dug on some railroad property off Military Road in Buffalo's Black Rock neighborhood.

The underground bunker was equipped with a narrow makeshift bed, a small fireplace, a portable toilet and a stereo radio that Rounds kept tuned in to a classic country music station. He used old car batteries for power.

Rounds allowed a News reporter and photographer into his bunker and told them he had been living underground for six years. He said he had no official identification, no mailing address and hadn't filed tax returns or had interaction with any government agency in years.

At the time, Rounds said he was happy and relatively comfortable, avoiding all the institutions of mainstream society.

Since then, Rounds has experienced good times and bad. He continued living in the bunker for about two more years, but he was forced out after neighborhood thugs twice set the bunker on fire.

"After that, I lived for about a year, with four other homeless guys, in a tent we made out of old plastic tarps," Rounds said.

He then moved into a city junkyard, where he lived in an old Tops Markets trailer and even had a small stove in there for warmth. But Rounds said he finally realized about a year ago that the homeless life was getting too rough.

He said he has been brutally assaulted twice -- once by a gang of teens who attacked him near the bunker and once by a drunk friend who clobbered him with a baseball bat.

Over the past 10 years, Rounds estimated, at least 10 of his homeless drinking buddies have died. Some died from alcoholism or drug abuse. One was beaten to death, and another died after he was hit by a car.

"These were not bad people. They were people who ran into situations that they didn't know how to deal with," said Rounds, who said he has battled alcoholism, schizophrenia and depression.

"I was having arthritis and other health problems, and I began to realize, 'I can't do this anymore,' " Rounds said. "I felt like I was being chased and hunted. There were some kids in the neighborhood who would beat up homeless guys -- I don't know why, maybe so they could brag about it to their friends at school."

Assisted by friends and members of some Black Rock churches, Rounds began to take steps to re-establish his identification and sign up for social services programs.

He said he served as a radar man in the Army in the early 1980s but had never taken advantage of veterans' benefits.

"A [Veterans Affairs] caseworker tracked me down and convinced me that I should apply for the programs that they have," Rounds said. "Now, I'm going to counseling, I'm seeing a psychologist at the VA, and I'm getting some help. I've been sober for four months."

Sean Lindstrom, a veterans housing counselor with Belmont Housing Resources for Western New York, has also been helping Rounds.

"Clarence seems to be doing well. He seems excited that he's going to get a place of his own," Lindstrom said.

Rounds said he needs to come up with a $590 security deposit before he can move into the Buffalo apartment, which will then be paid for by the VA.

Since August, Rounds has lived with about 15 other homeless veterans in the Genesee County transition house run by the Loyola Recovery Foundation. Working with the VA, the foundation provides temporary housing for homeless vets from all over Western and Central New York.

Homeless veterans are a serious problem in the region, according to Lindstrom and Patrick W. Welch, director of the Center for Veterans Services at Daemen College. Welch said one local study estimated that there are more than 450 homeless veterans in the Buffalo area.

"A lot of the homeless guys who hung around my bunker were veterans," Rounds said. "When you're in the military, for every minute of the day, you're told where to go and what to do. When you get out, it's a tough adjustment for some guys."

Rounds has set simple goals for himself when he moves into his new apartment. He has worked various odd jobs -- including painting and roofing work -- for years, and he plans to continue doing that. He hopes to stay sober.

"I'm just looking to stay stable, stay healthy and lead a good life," Rounds said. "I feel like I'm finally on the right path. I want to stay on it."

email: dherbeck@buffnews.com