On any given night 62,000 of our nation’s veterans sleep on the streets. According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development they make up nearly 13% of the American homeless adult population. Over the course of a year, approximately twice as many experience homelessness at one time or another.
In 2012 the number of homeless veterans dropped by 7%, however with more than 2.4 million American soldiers currently returning from wars in Afghanistan and Iraq it is unlikely that the Obama administration will be able to eliminate the issue by 2015 as proposed. It is far more likely that the number of homeless vets will rise again, a concern expressed by numerous non-profit community organizations that work with veterans across the country.
Since 1987, the US Department of Veterans Affair’s (VA) programs for homeless veterans have emphasized collaboration with community organizations to expand services in crisis areas. Using its own resources or as a partnership it is credited with reducing the number of homeless veterans by 70% since 2005. The most effective programs for homeless veterans are community-based, nonprofit, or “veterans helping veterans” groups. The programs that seem to work best feature housing with the camaraderie of living in structured, substance-free environments with fellow veterans who are succeeding at bettering themselves.
Government funding is limited and available services are often at capacity. Therefore it is critical that community groups step in to provide the support, resources and opportunities that most Americans take for granted, specifically housing, employment and health care. Veterans who participate in collaborative programs are afforded more services and have higher chances of reintegrating back into society.
Last year I traveled across the U.S. with the support of National Geographic Magazine and Facing Change encountering hundreds of homeless veterans who served in wars from Vietnam to recent conflicts.
Los Angeles, California
More veterans live on the streets of Los Angeles than any other city in the country. There are 51,000 homeless people in the city, 6,371 of them veterans according to the last count by the Housing Department in December 2012. This is down from over 9,000 in 2011, thanks in part to the Home for Good initiative, a program launched two years ago as a blue print to end Los Angeles County’s homeless veteran issue by 2016. Secretary for Veteran’s Affairs, Eric Shinseki, has provided rental vouchers and money to those who have housing but are on the brink of eviction. For vets whose sole problem is poverty, these measures have been successful to some degree. But for the many vets with serious psychiatric problems, substance abuse issues and physical disabilities, the solution has to be permanent supportive housing, with case managers on site.
Home For Good, the VA and many L.A. outreach programs are working hard to provide these services.
L.A.’s Skid Row, located in the heart of downtown, has 6,000 inhabitants and remains one of America’s most shameful living quarters. Veterans from all generations are represented there and drugs and violence run freely up and down the streets. On various days the VA will send a small team of outreach workers onto the streets and into the many homeless shelters that line the district. Savvy and tough, they move from space to space proudly introducing themselves to make their presence known. Primarily they search for vets that have either just arrived or have fallen through the cracks in the system. That veteran then becomes a recognized client and is registered and invited to come to the VA for benefits. Many are reluctant and put-off by the massive bureaucratic structure of the Los Angeles VA located in Brentwood. Even so veterans from all across the country migrate to L.A. County because of the mild weather, the large VA presence, and the many benefits available from dozens of smaller agencies.
On April 2, 2012 I accompanied VA outreach workers Michiko Riley, Jennifer Hark Dietz, Dianne Walker and Raymond Adams into Skid Row. Iraq and Afghanistan vets are coveted because their current benefits are the most extensive. On a number of occasions young Iraq war veterans were identified on the streets. Most are suffering from substance abuse and reluctant to come in for benefits. I watched as Michiko Riley addresses a young Iraq vet in the Volunteers of America Center; he refuses their help but accepts Michiko’s card. It is the best they can do for now and they move on.
The VA works with thousands of nonprofit outreach programs throughout the country and in L.A County few individuals have more influence than Kerry Morrison, the Executive Director of the Hollywood Property Owners Alliance who was appointed by Mayor Villaraigosa to the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority Commission in 2011. I accompanied her to a meeting in March 2012 attended by several VA employees as well as Rudy Salinas from the organization PATH (People Assisting the Homeless), Public Counsel lawyer Rick Little and Sieglinde von Deffner of Housing Works. They hoped to organize themselves to get 100 veterans off Hollywood’s streets within the next 100 days by providing them with government-sponsored vouchers for permanent housing. The Housing Choice Voucher is a joint effort by the Department of Housing and Urban Development–VA Supportive Housing (HUD-VASH) Program that provides assistance for homeless veterans to rent private housing and pay 30% of their income (whatever it may be) while the government voucher guarantees the remainder. These vouchers are a golden ticket to get off the streets and are hard to come by.
Some months earlier Kerry traveled to Washington DC to discuss with VA officials the new Obama plan to eradicate veteran homelessness by 2015. It was not entirely successful. She outlined realistic concerns about the complications of bringing vets off the. She expressed how she and others want desperately to work with the VA to tackle the issue but it may take more time due to red tape, limited available housing and veterans’ willingness to accept permanent housing. It was not what the administration wanted to hear.
Later that month I made a sunrise hike into the Hollywood Hills, just behind the Hollywood Bowl, with Rudy Salinas of PATH as he conducted an outreach into what are known as the infamous hidden lands of homeless encampments. Many veterans construct tent base camps behind the shrubs and high grass rendering themselves invisible to the thousands of moving cars on the freeway just a few feet below. In the next week the L. A. police department was planning a sweep of the hills to remove homeless residents as they have done a few times in the past. Rudy wanted to take a count of how many were currently up on the hillside and alert them to move before the raid.
A few hours later I was traveling the streets of Hollywood with PATH outreach worker Reggie Homees. He led his team to 32-year-old Iraq vet Damien Rodgers from Iowa, living in a dangerous alleyway with a number of homeless junkies. He was obviously suffering from PTSD. He claims he had visited the Veterans Affairs in L.A. and was intimidated by it’s heavy bureaucracy. He had taken the medicine they prescribed for PSTD and the result was that his brain “just went numb.” He claimed that for him the choice was between taking the VA’s meds that rendered him brain dead or suffering from his war nightmares. He chose the nightmares. I asked Damien if he would come with me later that day to a Hollywood shelter a few blocks away for Iraq vets run by Volunteers of America. He agreed but never came.
As night fell I returned alone to the location to find him in hopes of giving him the address and contact where help was waiting. When I arrived it was dark and the scene was tense. Women approached my car quickly as I locked it and moved towards a darkened doorway with a number of homeless men standing about. I asked for Damien and when he came up a small stairway he asked me what I was doing there. He was adamant that it was extremely dangerous for me to be there and that I should never do this again. I told him I came because I wanted to help him and handed him a card with the address and contact. He began to cry. He thanked me and then he moved away telling me that what I had done was very dangerous.
A few days later I met 52-year-old Raymond McGinnis, a Navy veteran who was sleeping in a PATH shelter but will most likely receive a VA voucher to move into his own apartment within months. He had been on the streets of Hollywood for 6 years and suffering from alcohol abuse. He served from 1977 to 1983 and then worked as a landscaper until he permanently injuring his leg in a car accident and subsequently losing his job. I began the day with him collecting cans from dumpsters to earn a few coins, moving through housing projects and alleyways and into a world only a homeless man could know. We went for lunch at a church that offered free food to the homeless and then moved on to the Social Services Center at Blessed Sacrament where he meet his good friend Nancy Miller, 52, who was also homeless. From there the three of us moved to the Gilbert Hotel where Nancy was staying. The Gilbert is one of two rundown hotels in Hollywood that houses the homeless. Nancy had some drink and so we had a few cups in front of the Gilbert but then had to move to an adjacent parking lot were we were out of police sight. I had to leave them there to visit another vet but learned later that Raymond got quite drunk that day and fell to the pavement injuring his head. This was somewhat common for Raymond according to Sieglinde of Housing Works who had made the introduction for me.
Just down the street was long-time homeless vet James Brown, an amazing character who was as big and fun as his name would suggest. 54-year-old James had served in the army from 1976-1979 and had just recently been placed in housing with the help of a voucher. He was homeless and lived on the generosity of others for more than ten years. Excited about his current situation, he claims he has his own refrigerator and oven, which is something he could only imagine for years. “Ice cream,” he exclaims as his eyes widened, “I don’t have to eat it immediately I can save it in the freezer!”
Psychotherapist Stuart Perlman paints a portrait of homeless army veteran Jerome Bourassa near Venice Beach.
At sunrise on a Saturday morning I met Stuart Perlman in Santa Monica, who has been a highly successful psychotherapist for over 35 years. His other career as a painter portraying Santa Monica’s homeless has been equally as impressive. Several weekend days each month Stuart heads to Venice Beach to work on his growing collection that he claims portrays the faces of individuals that most people look past. Wearing paint-spattered jeans, a plaid shirt and a black wool Stetson, he allowed me to accompany him to where he was set to meet with a small group of homeless veterans. The problem is that today it is raining and when we reach the beach his friends are nowhere in sight. Through contacts Stuart makes his way to a nearby underground garage where 49-year-old navy veteran Bruce Miller and 53-year-old army veteran Jerome Bourassa are held up with their friends Daphine Belvins, 48, and 26-yr-old Richard Beitler. They love Stuart. He is so well known by the Venice Beach homeless community that we are instantly part of the group and sharing in the warm camaraderie. Setting up his portable easel and fresh canvas he begins a portrait of Jerome, a lively bearded gentleman who dances Michael Jackson moves in the garage’s concrete confides to music in his head. As the morning progresses the group expands and contracts and expands while the drink and weed begin to flow. There are moments of fighting, moments of affection and moments of madness but a few hours later Stuart has captured the basics of what he needs to begin the painting and we pack up to hugs and goodbyes from everyone in the group. The experience was like watching the circus and being part of it at the same time.
Through numerous contacts I met many of L.A.’s homeless veterans during my 3 week stay but few memories will stay with me like the experience I had with Vietnam veteran Michael Ortiz as he packed up his belongings at the Volunteer of America (VoA) temporary housing facility in skid row to move into his new home for the first day. Michael completed the program at the VoA after nine months following more than one year of homelessness. He moved to permanent housing with the help of VoA and a VA housing voucher. I drove him that day to his new apartment and he was so excited, telling me stories of Vietnam, his life and loves, and sincerely offering to put me up in his two bedroom apartment if I ever returned.
San Diego, California
Stand Downs are typically one to three day events that are part of the VA’s efforts to provide services to homeless veterans. This includes food, shelter, clothing, health screenings, VA and Social Security benefits counseling, and referrals to other necessary services such as housing, employment and substance abuse treatment.
The first Stand Down was organized in 1988 by a group of Vietnam veterans in San Diego that later formed the organization known today as Veterans Village of San Diego (VVSD). Between the years 1994-2000 dozens of Stand Downs have been organized across the U.S. to reach out to more than 200,000 veterans and their family members.
It was 5 a.m., an hour before sunrise, when I arrived at the entrance to the Stand Down located in the heart of San Diego. Hundreds of homeless veterans lined the sidewalks between the roadway and the high chain-link fence that separated the arrivals from the grounds that would soon become their home. Many of them had spent the night sleeping on the street right there to make certain they would get in. The vets were wearing worn clothing, pushing shopping carts full of belongings and many of them unclean and ashamed of how they looked. When the gates opened for registration veterans confined to wheelchairs were the first allowed in.
Within an hour all 1,000 participants were logged in and moved off to a U-shaped group of tents named Bravo, Charlie, and so on. They all grabbed a cot and set up their space. Many lay down and slept right there but most headed off for the showers. Others moved off to pick up new clothing, shoes, and hats while others seeking medical attention and dental care walked off to an opposing corner of the fair grounds. There was a cornucopia of services being offered: a book library, haircuts, back massages, and eye exams with new frames and glasses. By lunchtime most of the homeless were cleaned up, shaven, newly clothed and spotless. The transformation of 1,000 homeless veterans within hours was amazing. It was nearly impossible to distinguish the participants from the workers and Stand Down hosts. More importantly their dignity had also been resorted. At lunch they spoke freely reeling off stories of life on the streets and their colorful pasts. One spoke of life as an elephant trainer for Ringling Brothers/Barnum and Bailey Circus and how smart and sensitive the animals are. Others spoke politics with great insight. Many were hoping to make the leap back into society given the chance to clean up and look presentable.
Over the next two days I witnessed a judge and lawyers removing all misdemeanor crimes for homeless vets in a court set up right on site. I also visited 2 trailers housing four dental chairs and a group of navy dentists that filled cavities and removed teeth.
Three meals a day were served as members of each tent where called up to take a plate one at a time. Each day started with the pledge of allegiance and in the evening live entertainment was offered on a stage. I made friends with many during these three days, and one morning I took juggling lessons from a cool young homeless vet that was helping people practice the art. It is a skill I was mildly familiar with but he offered me many tricks as I put my cameras aside and had fun.
Much of the time I hung out at Mike tent. It was inhabited by young Iraq and Afghanistan vets, most suffering from substance abuse. One young man had lost everything–his wife, two children and his home–due to his addiction to methamphetamine but he wanted it back. He had been through a number of programs and was doing ok but was hoping to enter Veterans Village rehab program which would select a few at the end of the event. His wife and children came to see him at the Stand Down. They were beautiful and he turned to me and said that he gave up all of this for a drug. Even he couldn’t believe it.
On the final morning of the Stand Down a vetted group was chosen to attend the Veterans Village rehabilitation program. Many veterans came for the weekend event just for that opportunity. Only a handful was chosen and the program is so successful that many of those broke down and cried when they were accepted. Others were at a loss when they were not. Sadly my friend with his family was not chosen.
That afternoon Stand Down presented each tent in a final parade around the stage. The men and women all marched with great pride. Their heads and their spirits were high but it was the last moment of their weekend journey. In the end they all held hands in a massive semi-circle saying a prayer and then they left to the streets. One by one they gathered their belongings and moved out. A number of friends that I had made looked back at me asking, “Where can I go now?” without speaking a word, to which I had no answer. My final look was at the man I had juggled with. His new gold rim glasses framed his bright young face and he looked back and me and then moved off into the streets he sadly knew all too well.
Southwest Atlanta is a tough place. The housing crisis of 2009 left much of the area looking like inner city Detroit. Homes are left empty, boarded up and abandoned block after block. Shops and commercial businesses have been closed. Right in the heart of this district is Veterans Empowerment Organization (VEO), a nonprofit that accepts homeless veterans from the streets of Atlanta. It is an effective rapid rehousing-to-permanent housing program. Their goal is to help the nations homeless heroes regain their dignity and become self-sufficient.
Since 2008 VEO has provided housing to hundreds of veterans. Presently they are serving 60 unit-beds in transitional housing at no cost to the residents, along with 25 units in affordable permanent housing. VEO Village is their newest program that will serve close to 400 homeless veterans each year.
VEO’s “Housing First” approach provides the necessary support: shelter, food, clothing and access to their VA medical benefits. They track and transport the veterans to the hospital for appointments that are critical to their stabilization, particularly those with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). VEO provides Wrap-Around Case Management, a strategy that involves “wrapping” a comprehensive array of individualized services and support networks “around” the veterans, rather than forcing them to enroll in pre-determined, inflexible treatment programs.
When I arrived in Atlanta the VEO was in the midst of renovating a number of abandoned homes to provide decent housing to 20 more vets. With help from Home Depot and other sponsors it looked like something that was all too obvious but no one else was doing. I attended the opening ceremonies with dozens of local supporters, caseworkers, vets and press. It is the thousands of small organizations like this across the country, dedicated to making a difference, that are effecting real change. The VEO is supported entirely by local community sponsors.
In his room I met 63 year-old army vet Steve Arline. He served from 1966 to 1972 as a former helicopter gunner born in Jackson, Georgia. He was in Vietnam from 1969 to 1971 and later became an Atlanta policeman and greyhound bus driver. He also worked as a car salesman for ten years but suffered from a cocaine addiction resulting in a divorce in 1988, leaving his wife and his 5 and 3 year old children. He has been clean for some time now after recovering with help from the Atlanta Anioch Baptist Church. He sees his ex-wife and children now and is living and going through the process at VEO.
With these small organizations of hope and the government administration’s push to house veterans, they stand a chance, but all agree from Los Angeles to Atlanta that they fear the huge influx of vets moving onto the streets as soldiers return from Iraq and Afghanistan. They are all bracing themselves for the coming years.
DEMOGRAPHICS OF HOMELESS VETERANS
• 13% of the homeless adult population are veterans
• 20% of the male homeless population are veterans
• 68% reside in principal cities
• 51% of individual homeless veterans have disabilities
• 50% have serious mental illness
• 70% have substance abuse problems
• 51% are white males, compared to 38% of non-veterans
• 50% are age 51 or older, compared to 19% non-veterans
Text and Photographs by Anthony SUAU
Photography editing Daria BONERA
With the support of National Geographic Magazine