Illustration: Aaron Gelston
The man in the blue coat pushed deeper into the woods. He was warned not to go ahead on his own, but like he told the others, “this is not my first rodeo, Marine…”
He could tell by the smell of bonfire he was drawing close. The encampment would be just ahead. He let the crunch of snow under his boots serve as introduction. The hard-living man had watched him approach through the tree line and had the drop on him. By the time the man in the blue coat turned around, he was already looking down a rifle’s barrel.
“Yeah, that was one I had to talk down over the radio,” Sergeant Al Raddatz reminisces from his Painesville Township office. “I had to have the guy with the rifle pointed at him hold the radio so I could talk to the guy holding rifle just so I could deescalate, calm everybody down.”
Al Raddatz uses the “not my first rodeo” anecdote as a teaching lesson for those who join his Sub Zero Mission. As their name implies, the charity is far less a fundraiser and more a missionary cause driven by personal and incredibly passionate convictions. He’s spent the past 11 years putting cold weather survival clothing in the hands of the homeless community across Northeast Ohio, literally and without intermediaries.
“The government cannot or will not help everybody,” Raddatz explains. “People pay their taxes and just think that the government is taking care of all of this. People don’t realize how inefficient the government is in helping those people out there and how many of those people there actually are. Even when the money is out there, it doesn’t always get where it needs to. It stops somewhere in that big bureaucratic net up there. You need a group that’s willing to go out there and put boots on the ground and find these people.”
A retired U.S. Marines Sergeant, Raddatz was in a VFW hall one particularly bitter winter night 11 years ago when he first learned a fellow veteran was trying to survive under a nearby bridge. “We loaded up our old military gear and took it out there,” he recalls. “It ended up being two gentlemen out there under that bridge that night. Once the Leroy (Township) VFW heard we were doing that, they started bringing their own stuff in and the Mission started from that.”
Despite the best of intentions, Raddatz soon saw a fundamental disconnect in the cold weather clothing donations they gathered for local drives and shelters. “We were carrying things into rooms and parking them right next to things that we had brought in the last time. That’s when we discovered we needed to be a little bit more direct with all of this.”
Raddatz eventually outfitted a trailer with a side service window as a mobile Sub Zero Mission command center, supplying various homeless communities with much needed clothing to survive the elements.
“I was pretty naïve,” he admits of his initial outings. “I’m a Somalia vet. I was part of Operation Restore Hope back in the early ‘90s. When you’re handing out food, the crowd can get worked up into a frenzy. What I didn’t realize was how much an effect a bunch of people standing around with guns has on crowd control.
“I didn’t expect the level of aggression that I saw. We were getting pushed against our vehicles while we were trying to hand things out. It was dangerous. Not everybody out there on the street who is homeless is also kind and gentle. You can run into some rough bunches.”
Raddatz understood they needed better control and played to his strengths, creating the Blue Coats, a trained regiment composed primarily of veterans and first responders. The act of receiving a blue coat is not offered lightly and only done after Raddatz believes the volunteer is willing to commit. “We’re in this for the cause, not the applause,” he tells new recruits. “I’m not here to give you a homeless tour or a feel good story.”
Run entirely on donations and volunteer hours, many within his group have earned their Blue Coat status by going on multiple runs or contributing in their own ways like in the motor pool or grant writing. Some of his most valuable contributions come directly from the homeless community. It is not uncommon for a homeless veteran to act as liaison between the Mission and the various enclaves they’re attempting to approach.
While their initial and continued driving focus is serving the homeless veteran community, no one in need is off of their list. City and sometimes state boundaries are afterthoughts in the face of their cause. “For the most part, most places know who we are. We don’t get any kind of hassle. We don’t do a lot of forecasting,” he acknowledges. “I’m more of a beg forgiveness than ask permission kind of person.”
He carefully adds, “If (law enforcement) want us to leave, we leave. But if we know there are people in need out there, we’re going to find a way to get them what they need.”
That’s not to say Sub Zero hasn’t made in-roads with communities either. Organizations like Painesville’s Heritage Middle School and Willoughby’s United Methodist Church have previously participated in the organization’s recurring “stuff the bus” fundraisers where they gather donated hats, gloves, coats, sleeping bags, and boots for the homeless alongside the larger-than-life penguin and polar bear mascots of the group. Raddatz is aware of how closely public perception is tied to interaction and likewise introduced the mascots in order to captivate youth to significant social issues at an early age.
The past decade has been a balancing act for Sub Zero Mission. Their ambitions and expansion is tempered by financial limitations. Outside of the 60 hours a week he’s afforded three veterans, no one involved with Sub Zero draws a paycheck. To cover assets, he’s begun renting back offices out of the building which Sub Zero operates to other businesses. Still, the location is an ill fit. Without garages, their vehicles, which he describes as being “held together by chewing gum and chicken wire,” are left exposed overnight. Even with additives to their diesel fuel, there have been morning when frozen tanks left unable to reach others in need.
If there have been financial strains, they come in the face of increasing overall support from the surrounding communities. This year is projected to be the first one in the history of Sub Zero Mission that they will be able to operate entirely off donations. According to internal numbers, Sub Zero handed out approximately 25,000 of its “Stay Alive Five” cold weather survival items (hats, coats, gloves, boots, sleeping bags) in 2018. The group estimates this directly aided 2,500 individuals in need. Sub Zero has also limited the donations they accept to exclusively these five items in order to provide the most essential items in the most efficient way possible.
Far from self-congratulations, Raddatz points to the skull and crossbones attached to the grill of their service truck. It’s a constant reminder of the person in need that they were too late to reach in time, he explains. Thiers is a constant race against death.
“It’s hard to drive away,” he says, “but you can’t save everybody.”
It’s a hard truth he’s had to reconcile with his members. “I’ve brought people back in tears before,” Raddatz says. “That’s part of the reason I cycle my people out when they go on missions. Charity exhaustion is a real thing.”
Raddatz likens his work to wiping the nose of an epidemic. Taken in its totality, it would easy to succumb to the obvious futility that ending homelessness poses. Instead, the Sub Zero Mission and the Blue Coats that comprise its ranks focus on the individual, one person in need at a time. Paired against the sheer scale of national averages, they’ve but little hope. But to those huddling under a bridge or amid ramshackle enclaves in the woods unsure if they’ll make it through the night, Al Raddatz and the Blue Coats of the Sub Zero Mission make all the difference in the world.
A Glimpse at the Numbers
Numbers from the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness estimated 10,249 people were homeless on any given day in Ohio throughout 2018 with 749 of them being veterans.
Bear in mind, this is merely the number that was able to be reported to the Department of Housing and Urban Development, with countless more not being counted.
According to the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans, while only seven percent of the American population can claim U.S. veteran status, 13 percent of the country’s homeless population is comprised of veterans. The plurality of the country’s male homeless population is also veterans, at 20 percent.
Sub Zero’s Expanded Universe
Al Raddatz has recently partnered with artist Adam Fields to produce an original comic book stand-alone issue, The Blue Coat Missionary. Not only a creative way to fundraise, the comic book also highlights the struggle veterans dealing with PTSD face. The book is deceptively powerful, with its narrative coming from the personal insights and experiences with which Raddatz had first-hand experience.
“We’d go to events to hand out flyers and then we’d be seeing our brochures laying in the trashcan or that parking lot so we wanted to produce something that would be a little more lasting,” he explains of the creation.
“We met with a couple local artists and threw around some ideas. We wanted to make something for the older kids, maybe using our bear or penguin for the younger kids. We wanted to convey some of the issues that are affecting veterans.”
“This story is a powerful one,” Fields comments. “It sheds light on what it looks like when a veteran is down on his luck and struggling day-to-day with battling some remnants from his war days; the constant internal battle with voices and reminders of what he saw, what he went through and what he did while in combat. On top of the battle within, Death takes the form of a frigid, winter night and tries to claim another soldier that has been shunned by so many.”
Want to support Sub Zero and purchase The Blue Coat Missionary? The issue is available online at subzeromission.org/szm-store/.
For those interested in volunteering or donating to the Sub Zero Mission be sure to visit subzeromission.org for more information.