From the Ranks to the Street
After the homecomings are over and the yellow ribbons packed away, many who once served in America’s armed forces may end up sleeping on sidewalks.
This is the often-unacknowledged postscript to military service. According to the federal government, veterans make up 9% of the U.S. population but 23% of the homeless population. Among homeless men, veterans make up 33%.
Their ranks included veterans like Peter Starks and Calvin Bennett, who spent nearly 30 years on the streets of Los Angeles, homeless and addicted.
Or Vannessa Turner of Boston, who returned injured from Iraq last summer, unable to find healthcare or a place to live.
Or Ken Saks, who lost his feet because of complications caused by Agent Orange, then lost his low-rent Santa Barbara apartment in an ordeal that began when a neighbor complained about his wheelchair ramp.
“I’m 56 years old,” Saks said. “I don’t want to die in the streets.... This is what our [soldiers in Iraq] are coming home to? They’re going to live a life like I have? God bless them.”
Studies indicate that some will live such a life. Male veterans are 1.3 times more likely to become homeless than non-veterans, women 3.6 times more likely. According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, the estimated number of homeless Vietnam veterans is more than twice the number of soldiers, 58,000, who died in battle during that war.
In the past, data quantifying homelessness among veterans did not exist, said Phillip Mangano, who heads the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness. “It’s been precisely the lack of research that had us groping in the dark as far as what our response should be,” he said.
But in 1996, a comprehensive study on homelessness by the Census Bureau, co-sponsored by the VA and other federal agencies, offered a disturbing look at the men and women who once wore uniforms.
Although 47% of homeless veterans served during the Vietnam era, the study found, soldiers from as far back as World War II and as recent as the Persian Gulf War also ended up homeless.
It is impossible to know exactly how many U.S. veterans are on the streets, but experts estimate that about 300,000 of them are homeless on any given night and that about half a million experience homelessness at some point during the year.
Now, as fighting continues in Iraq and Afghanistan, social service providers wonder what will happen to this generation of service men and women returning home from war.
“What are they going to do for these guys when they come home ... other than wave a flag and buy them a beer?” asked Paul Camacho, a professor of social science at the University of Massachusetts Boston and a Vietnam veteran.
Nobody can pinpoint a single cause for homelessness among veterans. As with non-veterans, the reasons vary: high housing costs, unemployment, substance abuse, poor education. Veterans may also contend with war injuries, post-traumatic stress syndrome and frayed family relations.
The transformation from spit-polish soldier to urban nomad is as much a question of what does not happen in a person’s life as of what does. The strict, orderly world of military life -- where every soldier is housed, fed and treated when ill -- does not necessarily prepare veterans for the randomness of life outside. Even the VA loan guarantee, which has helped generations of veterans purchase homes, is useless for those too troubled, or earning too little, to take advantage of it.
Homelessness among veterans is currently the topic of joint talks between the departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs, said Peter Dougherty, the VA’s director of homeless veterans programs.
“Traditionally, what happens to you after you leave has not been a concern of [the] service,” he said.
The Defense Department has created a Transition Assistance Program -- designed to help smooth the switch from military to civilian life -- but such efforts lag far behind the problem, experts say.
Thousands of veterans struggle every day for survival in a fight that most are not prepared to wage.
Being a soldier made Sgt. Vannessa Turner proud. The petite 42-year-old, who holds an English degree from St. Mary’s College in Moraga, Calif., and a sharpshooter’s badge from the U.S. Army, loved wearing the uniform, serving her country, being a part of America’s might.
The military offered her a chance “for something better for myself and my daughter,” a shot at leaving “the ‘hood.”
Since 1997, the Boston native’s addresses had been U.S. military bases, some in Saudi Arabia, Korea and Germany. But the certainty of shelter crumbled last year 40 miles outside Baghdad.
On May 18, Turner was waiting in line at Camp Balad’s post exchange in 130-degree heat when she experienced difficulty breathing, then collapsed. Doctors at a nearby medical center put tubes down her throat and nose and inserted IVs into her arm.
As Turner lay in a coma, doctors reported that her death was imminent and officials medically retired her.
But Turner held on. Flown to Landstuhl, Germany, then to Walter Reed Hospital near Washington, D.C., the avid weightlifter was bloated, discolored, rigid and on life support. For three months she fought an illness that baffled doctors. As she recovered, she discovered a new life that baffled her.
With her return stateside in July, Turner unsuccessfully sought housing while still recovering and coping with post-traumatic stress syndrome, which keeps her up at nights and edgy. She and her teenage daughter relied on relatives and friends. They lived with her mother, then an aunt, next a cousin. Once they shared a one-bedroom apartment with eight people.
This kind of return home she could not have imagined as she drove a five-ton truck in Iraq, facing down angry crowds. “Never in my wildest dreams,” she said.
She soon learned the limits of her monthly service-related disability check of about $2,200. Realtors suggested that she leave Boston for cheaper areas.
Still in pain and suffering nerve damage in one leg, Turner sought help at the West Roxbury VA Hospital shortly after her return to the United States. The VA rep told her that she could not see a doctor until after October, Turner said.
What am I supposed to do until then? she asked. Go to the emergency room, she said she was told.
Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) learned about Turner’s dilemma and stepped in to help. Previously, Kennedy, the USO and Sen. John F. Kerry, another Massachusetts Democrat, helped Turner’s family with the money needed to fly to Germany to see her on what was presumed to be her deathbed.
Turner appreciated the senators’ help. She did not understand why it was needed.
“The point here is: I am a veteran of the war, wounded, and I cannot even get an appointment without the senator getting involved,” she said.
The VA has acknowledged what “was probably a mistake on our part,” said Dougherty, the VA official. “A returning veteran who comes back from the Iraqi freedom campaign is to be seen on an expedited basis.”
Since then, the “VA has responded appropriately,” he said.
It also took intervention by Massachusetts state Sen. Diane Wilkerson, Turner said, to finally find an apartment -- in the same kind of rough-and-tumble neighborhood she had escaped by joining the military.
As for her illness, the cause was never determined and its effects linger. For now, Turner is still all soldier, worrying about those she left behind in Iraq, still proud of serving the country. But there is also a feeling of dread she never expected to encounter.
“Growing up, you see Vietnam veterans on the streets, some with amputated legs, some crazy.... Now you see why,” she said.
A wheelchair ramp allowed Ken Saks to navigate the two small steps and get inside the Santa Barbara apartment building.
Then the ex-Marine -- who enlisted at 17 and stood 6 feet 2 when he was battling the Viet Cong -- lowered himself to his hands and knees and crawled up a flight of stairs to his $550-a-month apartment.
Last year, Saks lost the apartment and, for the second time in his life, was homeless.
The first time was in 1997. He was living in Palm Springs and had already begun to suspect that the war was making him sick.
In prior years, abscess sores covered his soles, worsening until he could not stand. He had diabetes -- caused, he suspected, by exposure to Agent Orange.
At that time, VA doctors had found no link between Agent Orange and diabetes and turned down his request for help. His life buckled under the weight of medical bills and poor health.
With his house in foreclosure and his job gone, Saks filed for bankruptcy in 1997 and eventually ended up living in an RV for five years.
“The mobile home was a last resort, because he would have been on the street,” said his mother, Mildred Saks, herself a World War II veteran. “He’s a doer. And he’s abrasive sometimes, but he’s got a lot of moxie. He’s a good Marine.”
Not until 2001 did the VA acknowledge that Saks’ diabetes and other health problems were service-related, guaranteeing him medical care and a $2,100 monthly disability check. But the help had come late.
“I had lost both my feet by the time they said this is Agent Orange,” Saks said. “Here I am, 30 years down the road.... It took my life savings. It took my home.”
The Santa Barbara apartment, where Saks wrote poetry in the solitude he craves, was a casualty of another sort.
Without a city permit, he had placed the wheelchair ramp next to the building on a wide stretch of sidewalk. Then a neighbor complained about the ramp.
What followed was a drama of court hearings and moral appeals involving the city, the building’s trustee and even the California Coastal Commission.
In the end, Saks was forced to move into a $300-a-week motel.
Finding another place to live was complicated by his disability and by the fight to keep his old apartment, which left an eviction on his record.
“I just think it’s heartless of this community,” he said, sitting on Stearns Wharf. “You wouldn’t have all [this] wealth and freedom if it weren’t for people like me willing to put on a uniform and go to war.”
In January, Saks finally moved into an $875-a-month one-bedroom apartment after a friend, a fellow veteran, spoke to the owner on Saks’ behalf.
To Toni Reinis, executive director of New Directions, a program for homeless veterans in Los Angeles, the presence of vets on the streets is a national disgrace.
The program is a cause for hope. In 2003, 170 of its graduates found jobs. Some went to work in New Directions’ businesses: a construction company, a catering company, a handy worker program, a cafe on the VA grounds in Westwood.
New Directions does not wait for homeless men and women to knock on the doors of the facility in Westwood. It sends graduates of the program, like Peter Starks and Calvin Bennett, out searching on skid row, at MacArthur Park and on county beaches -- often starting at 6:30 a.m.
One recent morning on skid row, among the cardboard houses, tents and tarps, they began the day’s search: Good morning, brother, how you doin’? You a vet? Anybody a vet?
One former Marine named Darryl sat on a crate, his belongings in a shopping cart. Another walked down the street wearing a “Proud to Be an American” jacket and missing a thumb.
A man who said he was a veteran and called himself Rock sat on a piece of cardboard eating spaghetti.
“I fought for the flag,” he said. “But the flag never fought for me.” Rock wanted nothing to do with Starks or Bennett, echoing a common distrust of government, particularly the VA.
In this work, experience is the currency that buys legitimacy. Many other veterans and non-veterans listened to Starks, the ex-Marine who was wounded twice in Vietnam and took his first hit of marijuana while hiding in a bomb crater. When he returned home, he used drugs, trusted no one and never talked about the war.
Starks spent 30 years addicted, pushing shopping carts, sleeping on the streets. Three years ago, a veteran who had graduated from New Directions spotted him and encouraged him to complete the program.
“Willie B. came and got me from the dope spot,” he said.
On this Thursday morning Starks searched the street for Mark, a 51-year-old former Navy man and heroin addict who had spent a month sleeping under freeways, and years and years in prison. The day before, after listening to Starks, Mark had said he would leave this life behind.
“I hope to God that this guy sticks to it,” Starks said, as he drove through skid row. He cruised past a crowd huddled around a dying campfire on the sidewalk.
Finally, he spotted Mark. “There he is!” In what seemed like one fluid motion, Starks was out the car, on the sidewalk, ready to scoop Mark up.
But Mark, a duffel bag on his shoulder, a tentative look on his face, was not ready to go.
I need to shoot up first, he told Starks. I need to find the dope man. Can you come back in 15 minutes?
Starks has seen windows of opportunity slam shut in an instant. Men get on the New Directions van headed to their new lives -- and get off before it leaves skid row. They say they will call and don’t. Standing next to the car, Starks did not chide Mark or preach. I’m not going nowhere, Starks said to Mark. I’ll wait right here.
In a few seconds, hardly enough time to find the dope man, Mark was back. Heroin, at least today, had lost its hold.
“I’ve had enough,” he said, heading for the car. “Let’s do it. Let’s go. I’m through.... I’m tired.”
“You’re making the right decision,” Starks said as they drove away.
At New Directions, 700 to 800 veterans finish the detox program each year. Then they return to the order that marked military service: up at a certain hour, dressed a certain way, bed made just so, meals together.
The men spend a year working on changing themselves: education, job training, counseling, medical care, anger management, reuniting with family.
In exchange, they agree to follow the rules, like the soldiers they once were. Mark did not balk or complain. All he wanted, he said, was what his habit had stolen from him.
“I just want a little dignity,” he said. “I want to look at my mother and my daughters and say I’m doing it straight.”
In the lobby waiting to begin the process, Mark seemed pensive but unwavering. Take care of this brother, Starks said to the staffer who came to greet him. Then he turned to hug Mark.
“It’s gon’ be all right,” Starks said.
Then he walked outside and raised his fist in victory.
Before the end of the month, Mark had left the Westwood campus and the opportunity that New Directions had offered. It is not known if he returned to the streets.
Since his departure, many veterans like him have completed the program. They now confront a vexing imbalance: Many will earn about $8 an hour in a town where the average rent for a two-bedroom apartment is $1,346, in a county where the median price for a house is $387,000.
Having conquered the demons of their past, they face a new battle.