Homeless on the Homefront

This article on homeless veterans in New Jersey was published in the South Jersey Magazine.

Homeless on the Homefront

…From the pages of South Jersey Magazine…

They’ve risked life and limb for their country, but staggering numbers of our veterans don’t have a place to call home.

It seems unconscionable, at a time of massive military deployments and when so much is asked of American servicemen and women, that thousands of military veterans should be homeless in New Jersey. Accurate numbers are hard to come by, but the Department of Military and Veterans Affairs estimates 250,000 vets are homeless in America; 8,000 of them right here in our state.

In a way, we’re experiencing the aftermath of problems that were never resolved at the end of the Vietnam War, when millions of combat veterans returned from Southeast Asia to an uncertain welcome at home. Military and veterans organizations were not as prepared as they are today to help soldiers reintegrate into civilian life.

Many of them wounded, most of them traumatized by their combat experiences, an untold number just beginning to suffer the poisonous aftereffects of chemical exposure, these vets brought the baggage of war home to a country that did not embrace their reintegration. Thousands entered spirals of despair, violence, addiction, unemployment and incarceration from which many have never recovered.

Which is not to say there’s no hope. Assistance is available at every level of government, and from veterans organizations dedicated to providing everything from basic necessities to advanced education.

Ted Fowles, now Senior Veteran Representative for the Department of Labor, is convinced today’s therapies could have avoided countless current tragedies. He credits EMDR, Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing therapy, as the cure for his own Vietnam-era post-traumatic stress syndrome symptoms. Just a few treatments in a controlled environment eliminated his nightmares and paranoia. “We’re just beginning to see a spike of homeless Gulf War vets,” he offers. “If we can get them treated in time, we can avoid a catastrophe of future ailments and disabilities.”

Bill Devereaux, Program Coordinator for the New Jersey Department of Military and Veterans Affairs (NJDMAVA), is careful about the numbers. “We’re serving more homeless vets now than ever before,” he says, “But that doesn’t necessarily mean more are homeless. With better outreach, we’re finding and helping a larger percentage of a population that used to be invisible.”

Himself a Vietnam veteran who has suffered the lasting effects of chemical exposure, Bill estimates he’s talked with 1,000 homeless vets over the last five years. He knows their stories all too well. “I hate to generalize,” he says, “But the most common immediate cause of homelessness is job loss from use of drugs or abuse of alcohol. One accompanies the other. We see more indigence than homelessness at first. Vets room with a buddy or a family member, or bounce from place to place. Some are highly service-connected and receive benefits of as much as $1,700-2,500 per month, enough for a cheap room, cheap meals.

“But the ones we work with are deeply disturbed. They suffer from debilitating illnesses: veteran guilt, post-traumatic stress disorder, anti-social behavior, an inability to reintegrate. It’s easy for non-veterans to trivialize, but the worst cases never connect again with civilian life. They came back alive when so many died and they never again feel like they’re where they belong. I know several who lost limbs in combat who even still feel they’re leading charmed lives they somehow don’t deserve.”

It’s a difficult population to serve. Follow-up is challenging without a fixed address. A favorite method for providing services is to hold a Stand Down at the local armory, at least annually, or as often as needed. The September Stand Down at Cherry Hill Armory attracted almost 200 homeless vets for a full day of social services.

“Stand Down has a military meaning for combat troops,” Bill explains. “It’s time off the active duty roster when a soldier comes in from the field for a hot meal, a shower, and a little recuperation time.” For veteran volunteers, the Stand Down is a time to feed other needy vets and give them winter clothing and basic medical services. “We have social security representatives to credential homeless vets and set them up for VA services and benefits,” says Bill. “They get dental exams, medical screenings, maybe even a pair of eyeglasses.”

Most vets have the survival skills to know when Stand Down is scheduled, but for those who don’t, the DMAVA has developed outreach techniques. “Guys go out under bridges and into soup kitchens. We’ll post notices in liquor stores. One vet lived in a tent in Camden, but kept a cell phone. He was afraid to leave his tent for fear of robbers, but we reached him by cell to tell him about the Stand Down.”

One wonders about prospects for the future. After all, New Jersey is currently in the midst of its largest deployment of National Guard units to active combat since World War II. A full 78% of current Guard units have been, are now, or will be deployed between last year and next. This is like nothing the Guard has ever fully anticipated or prepared for. In vast numbers, and despite guidelines to safeguard against it, personnel returning from Iraq find themselves unexpectedly jobless, homeless, apartmentless. Today’s veteran’s organizations, however, are much better organized and unapologetically aggressive in enforcing regulations that protect their fellow vets from poor treatment by landlords, employers and mortgage lenders.

“We’re already serving 4,700 returning Guard troops in New Jersey,” says Devereaux. “With deployments that size, we have our share of foreclosures, home losses, evictions and job losses. Transition can be especially tough for the self-employed and small business owners.”

“Even so, you’ll see less and less dramatic explosions from after-war shock,” he continues. “Today’s vets aren’t embarrassed about their service. We re-drill quickly and effectively. We debrief thoroughly and follow-up well. We have female trauma counselors to serve the women coming back from combat zones and rescue them quickly if they get into trouble or find themselves homeless.”

But even if the current generation of combat veterans avoids the dire straits of despair, addiction and poverty, we’re still addressing the legacy of past wars, still healing the damage done to the walking wounded. For some, the answer is a place in Winslow Township known as the Veteran’s Haven.

A formerly abandoned building, now fully renovated, on the grounds of the State Hospital at Ancora, Vets Haven provides 24/7 care for 54 homeless veterans on a rotating basis, for between six and 24 months per veteran. Residents must first be drug and alcohol free; most are referred while in VA hospital rehabilitation programs.

To serve its mission as transitional housing, Vets Haven breaks the cycle of addiction through assessment and treatment. Vocational training and education follow successful rehab. Residents who can secure jobs within six months of entering the Haven can remain for up to two years of continual support and reintegration. With a success rate as high as 73%, the facility is a model of efficiency, sending “graduates” back into the general population with steady employment and enhanced social skills.

Earl Smith entered Vet Haven seven years ago, after decades of homelessness, addiction, incarceration and despair. “For me, it was the perfect place at the perfect time,” says Earl. “God knows what my life would have been like without it.”

Earl says he enlisted for Army service in Vietnam, “naïve and patriotic, and came back a different person, to a different planet. When you’re out of immediate harm’s way, you feel safe, but subtle changes are taking their toll. I struggled for years to break the cycle of drug addiction, paranoia, anti-social behavior and rehabilitation. I got a reputation for wanting help but never committing to a program. The fifth or sixth time I came back to the same VA facility, they gave my spot to somebody else because they didn’t have anything new to tell me. I burnt through my family and friends and ended up living in abandominiums.

“I finally got miserable enough to put myself in God’s hands and hope He was listening. Divine intervention got me into Vet Haven. I watched 14 guys fall off the wagon my first month there, but I clutched to the program like a drowning man clutches a straw. “I’d take my morning coffee in the grounds of Vet Haven at Ancora, between the Bayville Correctional Facility, the Psychiatric wing for the criminally insane, and the pauper’s grave behind the Haven, and reflect on how lucky I was to have ended up where I was instead. I’ve been employed for five years now, clean and sober for seven. But I still consider myself to be in recovery.”

Earl found part-time work with temporary agencies while at Vet Haven. He had to pass a breathalyzer test after every shift. Now he’s a case manager for CODI, Career Opportunity Development Inc. of Egg Harbor City, working with prisoners on a government grant to help them secure employment. “I get paid to repay my debt to society,” says Earl. “And give back to all the people I owe so much to for helping me get where I am today. I want to say thank you for finding a home in New Jersey.”

Published (and copyrighted) in South Jersey Magazine, December 2006.

Author: David Hodges; Photo by Mike Wylot