TWIN FALLS • When Vietnam veteran Robert S. walks out of his tiny bedroom and down to the street, he checks the roof line.
“Unconscious habit,” he said, cracking a smile.
When he goes to group cognitive behavioral therapy, he sees other veterans wrestling with similar combat afflictions. He’s afraid people still consider him a “baby killer.”
After three tours in the Navy, Robert S. spent some of his time working, most of his time partying and all of his time skipping between different homes. Sometimes he lived in the back of cars, and he “was drunk from 18 years old on.”
His story isn’t unusual. More than 62,619 veterans nationwide were homeless last year. At least 40 live in eight counties in south-central Idaho, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs reports.
But many more can’t or don’t want to be found, say officials close to the situation. The reasons are many, from lost jobs and broken marriages to alcoholism, substance abuse, physical disability and mental illness.
Some, like Robert S., crossed the law.
When a man called his daughter a slut, Robert S. “gave him the one-two-three” and left the man in a coma. Now Robert S. is six years sober. (His surname is being withheld because he is in an anonymous recovery program.) After a trial and a year in jail, he faced six years in prison or four years probation in a halfway house. He took the latter.
Some veterans aren’t so lucky. They are trapped in homelessness soon after their service, and finding a way out is nearly impossible without help.
“They come back and they don’t have anywhere to go, or anything to do, and they’re like, ‘Gosh, I gave up all of this life for this? I don’t have anything. I’m broker than broke,’” said Jodi Warthen, a VA case manager. “… They have served us and given up some pretty good things, and now they are struggling.”
Warthen doles out 25 housing vouchers to get veterans off the street. But the vouchers, which are quickly claimed, fall short of meeting a destitute veteran’s needs to get on his or her feet.
To help fill those cracks during a veteran’s search for a home, a local non-profit recently received a $182,652 grant from Supportive Services for Veterans Families.
That news has “tickled” Bob Jackson, a local Navy veteran who served around the world from Vietnam to Desert Storm.
“It could actually, in my opinion, change the face of how we take care of homeless vets in a positive way,” he said.
Defining the Problem, Seeing Opportunity
Anyone can become homeless, and it can happen quickly, said Anna Johnson-Whitehead, program manager of health care for homeless veterans for the Boise VA Medical Center.
“Many people are just a couple of paychecks away from being homeless — veteran or not,” she said.
The causes of veteran homelessness “run the gamut,” she said. Sometimes it’s a lost a job. Some vets have mental health issues and prefer to be isolated. Others might be disabled.
Many veterans are used to living a certain way, and mental illness can complicate a return to civilian life, Warthen said.
“They are so fixated on certain things that it is really hard for them to move on and be task-oriented because they are stuck in their own mindset,” she said.
Most at-risk veterans don’t get help because they don’t know they’re eligible for various benefits, Johnson-Whitehead said. Sometimes female veterans “had never thought of themselves as veterans,” she said.
Homeless vets don’t only live under bridges. They couch surf, stay with friends, camp for months, live in an RV or are recently evicted or released from prison.
In six years of owning Stepping Stones and Renaissance House, Chad Roehl has helped house about 20 veterans.
Only one didn’t come from prison or jail, he said. That veteran had served a tour in Afghanistan and another in Iraq, but stayed only about 10 days at the home.
“It’s no drugs, no alcohol at my houses, and I just don’t think he was ready to quit,” Roehl said.
Many, however, have turned their lives around with a little help, Johnson-Whitehead said.
Roehl agrees. He’s seen success and found that many vets are tired of jail and want to better their lives, get sober and reconnect with family.
They’ve got to choose to change first, but a “hand up, not a handout” can make all the difference, he said.
The first step to putting a homeless vet back on the path to prosperity is finding a stable living environment, said Leann Trappen, community services director of the South Central Community Action Partnership (SCCAP).
Then veterans can work on the cause of their homelessness, she said.
“All these factors work together with housing,” she said. “When you are facing homelessness, it is hard to identify your priorities when there are so many things going on — employment, transportation and just trying to keep your family together.“
Homeless veterans often live in areas that exacerbate their problem, whether that’s addiction or exposure to harsh elements, Johnson-Whitehead said.
“It’s more than a struggle,” Jackson said. “Every day is like a Third World country for ’em.”
Richard Oman, an Air Force veteran, spent five years homeless in Las Vegas, living off what cans and scrap metal he could find.
“It wasn’t fun,” Oman said. He drank then but is sober now.
“Once you’re on the street, it’s real hard to get off because you don’t have a phone number, you don’t have an address, you can’t get a job and it’s tough,” he said.
Oman served as a security guard at air bases in Nebraska and Alaska from 1974-78. He became homeless and disabled after he blacked out and fell off a 50-foot bridge in 1995.
“I had three cardiac arrests in the first week and three major surgeries in 10 days,” said the Twin Falls man. “I had tubes putting blood in and tubes taking blood out. It was touch-and-go for about a month.”
Oman said he was able to get off the street with the help of VA disability assistance.
“It’s sad,” he said of homeless veterans. “You go and put your time in the military and some guys, if they are not disabled, they get forgotten.”
Vouching for a Future
Warthen has been a case manager for Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing (VASH) for two months. Her position was vacant for about a year, but word spread quickly when she started re-administering the VASH vouchers.
“It was kind of like a person walking into a swamp and all the mosquitoes finding them,” she said. “I love it because you can see reward. It’s very cut and dried: You find someone housing.”
Warthen is the area’s “absolute best resource” in fighting veteran homelessness, said Robert Smith, Jerome County veteran service officer and a retired Marine Corps sniper.
“She’s a godsend,” he said.
Warthen’s days are often hectic. She said she thought she’d have to wander the canyon searching for homeless vets, but vets came to her as the program has spread by word of mouth.
Veterans could apply for regular Section 8 housing assistance, but the wait can be three or four years. The 25 veteran-dedicated VASH vouchers also often have a wait-list, but turnover is quicker.
Some vets have vouchers but no home. Some landlords won’t take Section 8 vouchers. Others don’t want veterans who have been in prison. Still others charge more than the voucher covers.
“I’m really trying to make some of those connections in this town, because a voucher means nothing if you can’t get them into a house,” Warthen said.
Designed to Help
SCCAP is the area’s primary homelessness prevention organization, but the group doesn’t currently target veterans, Trappen said. The grant will change that.
The Valley House is the area’s preeminent homeless shelter. Its staff focuses on families and women but has helped many men and some veterans, said Executive Director Sharon Breshears.
The staff tries to refer the men to other housing resources or pay for a hotel room for a few days until they find a place to live. They help as much as they can, she said.
“We never let them leave with nothing in their hands.”
Trappen said SCCAP does the same, but the VA’s recent grants will give them more power in helping the veterans.
“We’re pretty limited because of funding right now,” she said. “We’re very excited to have this because this is going to give us an opportunity to open some doors and keep valued citizens in our region.”
Johnson-Whitehead agreed. The VA grants funds to non-profits because they are nimble and can stretch money in ways government can’t.
The money will make “all the difference in the world” for someone who needs a hotel room for a few nights, can’t afford an apartment rental application or needs a housing deposit or assistance moving, she said.
‘Start to Persevere’
Homeless veterans were not a community focus as recently as two years ago, said Jackson, quartermaster and adjutant of the Veterans of Foreign Wars Henry D. Lytle Post 2136. Now many area business owners aim to hire vets, and the community is aware of the problem, he said.
Jackson and others have advocated for them as well by writing supportive letters for more funding. The new grant money must be part of a “streamlined” process, he said, and help must come soon, not in 60 days.
“I get absolutely spun up about it,” Jackson said. “I get really vocal, and I’m not afraid to get on a soapbox and talk about it because they have no reason to be that way.”
Smith agreed. Local resources for veterans are scarcer than in Boise, but the network here is strong. Those who are helping, though, aren’t “beating their chest too much.”
“They are just getting the job done,” Smith said. “I’m a firm believer … but at the same time, it is a two-edged sword. You have to have that awareness in the community. ’Hey, look, this is an issue, these are the people dealing with it and if you can support them, great. Do it.’”
Warthen said she has seen firsthand the positive outcomes that awareness, funding and hard work can have. A veteran voucher holder recently bought a house, for example.
Some veterans “are these great success stories. They needed that little gap, hold their hand for a little bit, give them the extra support and they can move on. Others I think will be on it forever.”
Wednesday night, Robert S. sat on the edge of his small bed watching television and eating a macaroni dinner.
On his bookshelf a bumper sticker reads, “Never again will one generation of veterans abandon another.”
His advice for homeless veterans? “I wouldn’t know what to say to them. I lived in my truck for a while … lived in cars in cities. So, start to persevere and that’s all you can really do.
“If they lose their ‘want to,’ then it ain’t gonna get done. You’ve got to want to get ahead. This is America. That’s what this place is all about.”