Living in Epic Times – Coming Home

Humans do not thrive without a roof over our heads. We need the security of a home. Increasingly, this basic human need is out of reach for an ever-swelling segment of Americans. Beyond a few at busy intersections, holding signs that read: Will Work For Food, their ranks have been multiplying—their signs now saying, Please Help. It’s a simple request, but what’s the solution?

In 2009, then-Secretary Eric Shinseki of the Veterans Association, along with President Barack Obama, set an impossibly audacious challenge: to end veteran homelessness by 2015. In our national scandal that is homelessness, veterans are undeniably over-represented; why not start there? It’s an issue that everyone can support, Republican and Democrat alike. In mid-2014, as that goal loomed closer, First Lady Michelle Obama upped the ante with the Mayors’ Challenge to End Veteran Homelessness.

Despite it’s being such a daunting issue, dozens of states and communities doggedly pursued it. And what you need to know at this point is that New Mexico—the same state that forever comes in at the bottom of most national progress lists—is one of the leaders of this pack, with the mayors of three of its major cities having committed to the challenge: Mayor Ken Miyagishima of Las Cruces, Mayor Richard Berry of Albuquerque and Mayor Javier Gonzales of Santa Fe. Las Cruces achieved the goal first; Albuquerque and Santa Fe are right on its heels.  

What makes veterans susceptible in such high numbers? Imagine you’re a young vet having just returned from Iraq or Afghanistan. After enlisting in the service straight out of high school, your experience paying rent or utility bills is likely nil, and jobs based on the skills you learned in the military may be difficult to find outside of it. “It can be hard for a younger vet to manage daily life as a civilian,” says John Herman, case manager for the New Mexico Veterans Association. “For example, they might successfully enroll in college but be living out of their cars. It’s not uncommon for vets to come home and feel lost.”

This feeling of hovering on society’s edges applies to many vets, no matter what age or how long they’ve been back. It’s a vulnerable population. A certain number who left able-bodied return with service-related injuries, their job choices now vastly restricted, their lifestyles having had to undergo complete restructuring. Many return debilitated by haunting combat memories; they may suffer from nightmares and sleep deprivation and, if no help is sought, these post-traumatic stress symptoms can escalate to substance addictions, acute depression, rage and other behavioral disorders. Without a hand up, vets may fall into an isolated, self-destructive cycle, often leading to withdrawal, living on the streets. As vets, looking back over their own experiences, have aptly described, it feels like going from hero to zero. “They need stability,” John says. “Then everything starts coming together.”

Hank Hughes, executive director of the New Mexico Coalition to End Homelessness, helped found the organization in 2000. Currently, it’s composed of some 70 agencies statewide; Hank meets with representatives on a monthly basis, listening to what’s needed from different communities and tracking the homeless by name throughout New Mexico. That way, people who are harder to place in homes don’t fall through the cracks. “There’s some answer out there for everyone,” Hank says. Because the belief that we need to take care of returning vets is bipartisan, he’s believed all along that ending homelessness for them was a doable goal. Before this 2015 initiative, veterans often made up as much as one-fifth of New Mexico’s homeless population. That year, the Veterans Administration committed $75 million nationwide to permanently house disabled homeless vets, and another $300 million for short-term rental assistance to homeless or at-risk-of-being-homeless vets and their families. Currently, Santa Fe and Albuquerque advocates are able to house a vet within one month.  

It’s a collaborative effort. Goodwill Industries of New Mexico, which provides all of its services free of charge, is a gateway to providing work, skills and other services to anyone in transition, including vets under its Homeless Veterans Reintegration Program. It’s a holistic approach. Kip Vaughn, an ex-Green Beret, is Goodwill’s case manager assigned to northern New Mexico. Kip and John Herman, whom a colleague referred to as “the ones who do all the leg work—they deserve all the credit,” often work in tandem. Once John has helped qualifying clients receive HUD-Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing funding, Kip helps them settle in to their homes, often even setting up appointments with landlords.

“I was new in town,” one vet says. “I’d been camping in the National Forest for three months when I got sick, so I came into Santa Fe. John Herman brought me the form to fill out; I got my place, no waiting list—it all happened in record time, where on the East Coast it would’ve taken at least four months. He’s a remarkable man. And Kip Vaughn is a very generous guy, intensely involved with his clients—he helped me get a bed, kitchen utensils, everything I needed. He brought me the bed in his own truck!” Another vet, who returned from Bosnia in 1986 with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, ended up sleeping under a bridge, drinking, suffering very bad depression. “When I finally came out of it, I went to the VA in Espanola and met with Kip Vaughn. He gave me the paperwork, he helped me get a job. John Herman helped me get a place to rent. I still struggle, but I feel great now, too, because I see my progress.” Another vet, disabled in Desert Storm, says, “I was couch surfing when I got back; I slept in my vehicle in friends’ yards. I’d always been gainfully employed, but now I was out of work. The cost of living in the Santa Fe area, and wages being what they are—it was rough there for a minute. But I focused on getting a hand up, not a handout. I heard about Goodwill and I picked up the phone and called Kip. Now,” he adds, “I have no worries, no concerns.” The whole experience, he says, has been “very, very spiritual.”

The Veterans Integration Centers in Albuquerque provide similar help to vets. VIC Deputy Director and Transitional Housing Program Manager Fermin Ortega, also a vet, says, “Permanent housing is our universal goal.” But the first thing they do when a vet comes in is ask, “Have you eaten today?” Often they haven’t. VIC works with the VA, Goodwill and other agencies to provide housing for those who qualify; they also host the annual Stand Down event—there’s one in Santa Fe, as well—where homeless vets can come to get any help they need: from flu shots, winter clothes and sleeping bags, to job counseling, and even help establishing a mailing address with the Social Security Administration (“Often,” Fermin says, “they’ve been awarded a claim and they don’t even know it!”). VIC operates a thrift store where vets who need short-term help can work for an hourly wage. “We even get vets who started out not trusting, but now they’re back to volunteer with us; they’ve come out of their shell, and that gives me so much joy! This is definitely a labor of love. Everyone’s part of a team.” Their aim, Fermin says, is to provide every vet the dignity, empathy, respect and non-judgment they deserve.   

Following last year’s Memorial Day parade, the Albuquerque Journal quotes Santa Fe Mayor Javier Gonzales, in his speech, telling veterans that the city is honoring them by ensuring they have a place to call home. “Any veteran who becomes homeless in the future will be housed within 30 days.” He credits the coalition of local agencies who are helping to build the collaborative system for making this possible. In the same Journal article, Albuquerque’s mayor, Richard Berry, warns his city to remember that veteran homelessness is never finished—that returning vets will always need help, “and if we walk away and say we’re finished, that’s the worst thing we can do.”

“We’re pretty good at this,” John Herman responds when asked how Santa Fe reached what’s referred to as functional zero. “We work well as a community of providers.” Kip Vaughn’s response to the same question is, “Everyone’s on target with wanting to house vets.” Speaking for Albuquerque, Fermin Ortega says, “We have an absolute dedication to bringing everyone home.” The vet who spent his first three months camping in the National Forest says, “This speaks to the ability of people to get things done when the right people are in the right job. They work from the heart.” And giving the last word to the Desert Storm vet, “They helped me get on the path of alignment—and away we go!”  

by Gail Snyder

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