MR. SABRI BEN-ACHOUR
You can't really get away from the hoopla during a presidential election year, but here's something that's too easily overlooked. Sunday is Veterans Day, and across the U.S., more than 67,000 veterans are homeless on any given night. The majority of these veterans served during the Vietnam War, and many have severe mental illnesses, physical disabilities, or drug and alcohol problems. Now there's a national effort to end homelessness among veterans by 2015. Special correspondent Kavitha Cardoza takes us inside a program designed specifically to get vets off the street, and in their own homes.
MS. KAVITHA CARDOZA
Will Connelly, with the nonprofit, Pathways to Housing DC, is checking in on homeless people downtown. It's cold and rainy and miserable.
MR. WILL CONNELLY
How you been, Frosty?
MR. FOREST BIBBY
Pretty good. How you doing?
Doing well. What's going on?
Forest Bibby, who goes by Frosty, has a bushy beard, wears a camouflage jacket, and carries a Veterans for Peace flag. When he returned from Vietnam, he lost touch with his family and drifted from place to place. For decades, he slept in parks, alleys, abandoned buildings.
The army taught me well. They taught me how to survive in any kind of situation.
Bibby is resentful about how he's been treated.
I didn't have much of a choice to go in, so I went in to fight for my country. When I got out 37 years ago, they called us either crazy or drug addicts.
Will Connelly says that's part of the reason it can sometimes take years to build trust with these veterans.
Especially Vietnam vets don't often open up about what trauma they experience in the past, like PTSD and other things that they didn't really have the vocabulary for.
And Connelly gives out bags stuffed with fruit snacks, water, and beef jerky, he says several veterans need medical attention.
If you wear the same shoes and socks for a long period of time, your feet can just rot, basically. When it gets colder, hypothermia is an issue. There's a gentleman I'm working with that has a callus on his foot, and he tried to like shave it down himself, and he cut himself, and he's got diabetes and that's just -- it's not a good thing.
There are more than 500 homeless veterans in D.C., including David, who has scabies, Michael, who shouts out Bible verses, and Norman, who insists he's working with the President on a super secret project. Many don't have teeth, some have delusions involving the government.
There was a veteran that was sitting on the same bench in front of the Department of Justice for like over a year, and would only get up to like go to the bathroom.
He believed he owed the government taxes, and that was his way of paying off his debt.
So it was very complicated, and it was hard to follow, but you understood that he had to stay on this bench.
Christy Respress heads the nonprofit, Pathways to Housing DC. She's working with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to reach people exactly like Bibby, using a model called Housing First. She says the program does exactly what it sounds like, housing comes first. Then these veterans are connected with intensive services.
MS. CHRISTY RESPRESS
There's a psychiatrist, social workers, a nurse, addiction specialist, all working together with that veteran to help them achieve a full life.
Vince Kane, who heads the National Center on Homelessness among Veterans, says at first, VA hospitals were uncomfortable with this approach because they were used to doing exactly the opposite. Veterans, for example, had to be sober and taking their medications before they qualified for housing.
MR. VINCE KANE
In the past, there was this notion of somebody had to be housing-ready or treatment first.
Federal vouchers pay up to $1,400 a month toward an apartment. The veteran contributes up to 30 percent of his or her income, from disability or Social Security checks. Raymond Rose, another veteran, is hoping to get an apartment through this program. Rose has a heart condition, and walking even short distances leaves him breathless. He worked as a television cameraman in D.C., but when he lost his job, he wasn't sure what to do.
MR. RAYMOND ROSE
The money starts to run out after a while. I had to leave the apartment I was in, and that left me homeless.
All the while, Rose never told anyone. He says that's part of having served in the military, you learn not to complain or share your feelings.
When you come home, you don't talk about what you did, or what you do. I was kind of used to keeping the way I was actually living to myself.
Rose says the most challenging part of living outside isn't the fear of getting beaten up or getting caught in bad weather, it's being recognized.
The hardest part is wondering if someone you know is gonna come up on you. Wonder what's going on. What do you say? Growing up the way I did, there was a kind of pride in your status, you know, in the community. And now, it's like...
Rose trails off. After decades of having to stay semi-awake on the streets all the time, he dreams of getting his own place someday, a place where he can go to sleep, as he puts it, and stay asleep. Mary Cunningham with the Urban Institute, studies programs targeted at chronically homeless veterans. She says the Housing First model has been very successful among these veterans, most at risk of dying on the streets.
MS. MARY CUNNINGHAM
In multiple studies, 85, 90 percent actually remain in the housing.
Cunningham says some studies show veterans in the program are more likely to stop using drugs and stay on medication. It's also less expensive.
Many of the people you see on the street, they're using lots of services, cycling in and out of jails, hospitals, detox facilities, and they're using police resources. All of that costs the taxpayer money.
Vince Kane with the VA says, last year, the project was expanded from the District to 14 cities with high rates of veteran homelessness, including New York, Los Angeles and Chicago. And since Oct. 1 this year, every VA hospital in the country has been using the Housing First model.
These are the men and women that put their lives on the line for our communities. They have become disengaged, disenfranchised, disconnected. We need to assist them to fully come home.
MR. CURTIS LEE CLARK
Right here. If it doesn’t fit this way, facing this way? Okay.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE #1
UNIDENTIFIED MALE #1
Oh, that's true, okay.
The staff from Pathways to Housing DC is helping Curtis Lee Clark (sp?), a Vietnam veteran, settle in to his own apartment. He's literally just moved in. His new home is still empty. But Clark proudly shows off the gleaming, white carpeted rooms.
The bedroom, closet. You get a lot of room. Plus, it'll be my own. It's been a while.
Clark has been living in bus shelters and on park benches since 1984. His happy demeanor slips when he's asked why he didn't go to the VA for help. He says he did for years, but was told every time to be patient, you're on a list.
The government is not fair. They're a bunch of liars.
His fourth floor apartment has large windows, but the blinds are drawn.
Which window has the best view?
I put them down.
Reluctantly, he pulls up the blinds.
You see leaves, see the cars, you can see the changing of the seasons.
Clark takes a peek and then quickly pulls them down again. He's not ready to let the light in just yet, but maybe sometime soon. I'm Kavitha Cardoza.
This story is something of a preview of next week, when WAMU 88.5 will bring you a special week of coverage in recognition of National Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week. You can find more info at our website, metroconnection.org.
Time for a quick break, but when we get back, a high school baseball player works to recover from a major spinal cord injury.
MR. STEVE BALENGER
Every second of every day has changed for Nick. And every second of every day, Nick works hard, and he doesn't look back, and he doesn't look forward. He just grinds.
That and more in a minute, on "Metro Connection," here on WAMU 88.5.
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