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It's a cold and rainy, miserable morning, and Will Connelly, with the nonprofit, Pathways to Housing DC, is checking in on homeless people downtown. He sees Forest Bibby, with his a bushy beard, wearing a camouflage jacket, and carrying a "Veterans for Peace" flag.
When Bibby returned from Vietnam, he lost touch with his family and drifted from place to place. For decades, he's slept in parks, alleys and abandoned buildings. "The army taught me well, they taught me to survive in any kind of situation."
Bibby is resentful about how he's been treated. "I didn't have much of a choice going in, so I fought for my country. When I got out 37 years ago, they called us ether crazy or drug addicts."
Connelly says that's part of the reason it can sometimes take years to build trust with these veterans. "Vietnam vets don't open up easily about trauma they faced," he says. "PTSD — now they have labels for symptoms, they didn't have the vocabulary."
He says several veterans need medical attention. "If you wear the same shoes and socks for a long period of time, your feet can rot basically. When it gets colder, hypothermia is an issue. There's a gentleman I'm working with who has a callus on his foot, and he tried to shave it down himself and he cut himself, and he's got diabetes and it's not a good thing."
Another veteran who's homeless, Raymond Rose, says he never told anyone about his situation. 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, or what's entailed. So I was kind of used to keeping that part of how I was living to myself."
There are more than 500 homeless veterans in Washington, D.C., and more than 67,000 in the U.S. The majority of them served during the Vietnam War era. These veterans often have severe mental illnesses, physical disabilities and drug and alcohol addictions. They are the hardest to reach, and the most vulnerable.
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.
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. Then these veterans are connected with intensive services. "A psychiatrist, social workers, a nurse, an 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 had to take their medications before they qualified for housing. "In the past there was this notion that someone had to be housing-ready or treatment first."
Mary Cunningham with the Urban Institute studies programs targeted at chronically homeless veterans. She says the Housing First model has been very successful among veterans most at risk of dying on the streets. "In multiple studies, 85 to 90 percent actually remain in 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.
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, every VA hospital in the country has been using the Housing First model. He says, "These are the men and women who put their lives on the line for our communities. They've become disengaged, disenfranchised, disconnected. We need to assist them fully come home."
Slideshow by Ben Wormald
[Music: Homeless Vets: "(Just Like) Starting Over" by Vitamin String Quartet from The String Quartet Tribute to the Beatles]