Stephen T. Millhouse knew things were bad as soon as he heard a pop. The Sentinel High School and University of Montana graduate was putting on his shoes just outside of Jackpot, Nev. when he heard the sound. He'd been nursing a stress fracture in his foot but he had no idea how bad it had become—and he didn't care to find out. Millhouse had already walked from Missoula to the Nevada desert in an effort to raise awareness and donations to fight homelessness, and his plan was to reach Skid Row in Los Angeles. Despite the pop, he laced up his shoes and kept walking.
"I stopped at VA clinics throughout Nevada and they all told me I should stop," says Millhouse, who left Missoula Aug. 3. "It wasn't until I hit Martinez in the Bay Area [nearly 600 miles from Jackpot] that a VA doctor told me the bones were starting to float around in my foot. She knew I wasn't going to stop and, on her own dime, out of her own pocket, she purchased a state-of-the-art walking boot and had it shipped next-day air. She said it was her donation to the march. I've been overwhelmed by the number of people like her who understand the importance of what I was doing."
Despite his fractured left foot, a right foot that he says "is just flopping around" from over-compensating for his injury and countless blisters, Millhouse, 53, completed his 1,460-mile march on Monday, Jan. 2.
"It was never a question for me of whether or not I would finish," he says during a phone interview on the last stretch of his march. "The only question was what sort of difference I would make, if any. That's a question I'm still trying to answer."
The issue of homelessness is a personal one for Millhouse. After graduating from Sentinel in 1976, he joined the Marines and used the G.I. Bill to attend UM, and, later, Bradley University for a master's degree. By 1999, he wanted to try something new and moved to Los Angeles to pursue an acting career, only to suffer an injury that left him unable to work. He soon depleted his savings, was forced out of his apartment and started living in his car and a storage facility.
"I was never sleeping on a cardboard box on the street, I was never among the chronically homeless—but I saw how quickly things could change," he says.
Millhouse eventually moved back to Montana, where he camped and lived on family property near Lolo Hot Springs. He didn't find a home until the local VA, which had been providing him with medication, suggested he look into Valor House, the Missoula facility affiliated with the Poverello Center and specifically tailored to help homeless veterans.
"That was the start of the road back for me," he says. "I was at Valor House for a year and was able to get a Section 8 housing voucher and then I was released [from the workers compensation case in California] to go back to work in 2008."
Millhouse, who acted in Missoula before heading to L.A., landed a part-time custodial job at Missoula Children's Theatre. The job became full-time soon after. He says the march is his way of paying back those who helped him. He decided to do it after his niece was killed in a car accident last February and he was left to reflect on his life.
"I realized I've been lucky," he says. "I wanted to do something that could maybe make a difference. This was my way to pay it forward."
Millhouse says he accomplished almost all of his goals during the march. He made it to L.A., mostly camping along the route and carrying all of his possessions in a pack he rolled behind him. He learned how other communities support the homeless, such as the centralized resources in Vallejo, Calif., and the outreach coordinator working between area homeless and business owners in Santa Barbara. He also generated publicity and raised awareness of homelessness with more than 25 media interviews in four states.
He says the publicity is important, but only if it encourages members of the community to get involved. That's a sentiment echoed by local advocates who have followed his march. "I think for people to make a difference it has to go beyond just what they read in the newspaper," says Tessa Johnson, the Poverello's director of homeless veterans programs, who applauds Millhouse's efforts. "They have to take the next step and participate in their own community. That has to be a part of the solution."
The one goal Millhouse admits he hasn't accomplished is raising $1 million. As of last week, he only had about $3,000. He hopes to continue working toward the monetary goal by speaking to community groups, churches and shelters along his route and sharing what he learned.
"I don't know whether or not raising $1 million is feasible, but I don't want to be the one to say, 'No, you can't do it,'" says Naomi Lichtenberg, a board member and grant writer at MCT. "I'm all for someone pursuing an important cause like this one, working as an inspiration to others and helping to make it happen."
The shortfall is part of the reason Millhouse admits he's questioning what impact he's made with his march. But he tries not to make it about the money. "It's a human issue," he says. "It deserves and it demands a human response. I've found just how much more work there is to do."
He says he's eager to get started, just as soon as he rests his feet.
Learn more about Stephen Millhouse and his march at MyOneManMarch.org.