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In From the Cold: One Veteran’s Journey Out of Homelessness

Image: After being homeless for a short time, Louie Serrano, 38, is now settling into an apartment in San Dimas, California

After being homeless for a short time, Louie Serrano, 38, is now settling into an apartment in San Dimas, California, near Los Angeles, with his wife Emily, 29, and their 18-month-old daughter, Lali. Serrano, a veteran of the Marines and Army Reserves, lived in his car in October, 2012. "Sleeping in a car is not cool, especially when you have a vehicle where you can't recline the seats. I'm 6'2", so I can't necessarily fit in a car comfortably, even if I lean back." Jim Seida / NBC News

Those weeks he spent sleeping outside the all-night gym are fading from memory. The hopelessness he felt in the abandoned hospital wing has been replaced with gratitude. The happy ending is where to begin.

On the first day of November, Louie Serrano, 38, his wife and their 18-month-old daughter moved into a new, two-bedroom apartment near Los Angeles. In July, he graduated from college. Today, a civilian tech job pays the former Marine Corps infantryman and Army casualty coordinator nearly $6,000 per month.

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In barely two years, Serrano has risen from a homeless veteran sleeping in a used SUV to a homeless advocate who has donated almost $1,000 to ex-service members also striving to dig out.

“Every day, I’m thinking of a veteran. I think of the people who came before us, who contributed to our freedoms. I think of the people I served with. I’m always looking at ways to give back,” Serrano said.

His swift rejuvenation would seem to offer anecdotal proof that the U.S. Veterans Affairs Department can, as agency leaders have vowed, end veteran homelessness by the close of 2015.

But Serrano doesn’t see that sort of storybook ending. Why? He blames the VA’s well-documented flaws, including apathy among the system's medical personnel.

Serrano, who exited the military in 2004, said he experienced such indifference at the VA in Loma Linda, California, in 2005. He was having trouble sleeping and focusing at work. He thinks those were possible remnants from his final deployment: helping coordinate the care of wounded locals and troops flown from Afghanistan and Iraq to his post at a U.S. military hospital in Germany.

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At that SoCal VA center nearly a decade ago, a mental health counselor listened to his symptoms, Serrano recalls, and flatly told him, “There’s nothing wrong with you.” Serrano left and refused to go back for years.

“A lot of veterans are off the grid, living in the mountains, below underpasses," Serrano said. “A lot of those veterans did go and ask the VA for help. But if they didn’t get the help they needed, they said, ‘Screw the VA, we'll do it on our own.’”

According to the most recent numbers from federal officials, in January 2014, there were 49,933 veterans without homes. That represents a 40 percent reduction from 2010. Can nearly 50,000 people be driven down to zero in the next 13 months?

“Honestly,” Serrano said, “I don’t think that’s going to happen.”

But at VA headquarters in Washington, D.C., confidence remains high the mission will be accomplished.

"We are making tremendous progress," said Randal Noller, a spokesman for the VA. "... Our goal is a systematic end to homelessness, which means there are no veterans sleeping on our streets and every veteran has access to permanent housing.

"Should veterans become or be at-risk of becoming homeless," Noller said, "we will have the capacity to quickly connect them to the help they need to achieve housing stability."

On Monday, the VA announced a reorganization meant to provide a new focus on customer service. VA Secretary Bob McDonald said that would include a new top-level executive charged with ensuring that the department is “easier to navigate for veterans.”

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For some veterans, especially those who served during wartime, the descent from employed and housed to neither may start soon after they step off the transport home.

Often, as with Serrano, younger veterans return not by choice but due to service-related wounds or injuries. In his case, he was forced from the military by a bad knee and a bad back, he said, sustained from working at the U.S. military hospital in Germany. And often, as with Serrano, mental-health issues come home, too.

"A lot of the exposure I had to the patients coming in from Iraq and Afghanistan started to effect me to the point where I wasn’t able to sleep, thinking about people coming in blown up, hanging on to their lives by ventilators," he recalls.

Despite his aching knee (torn ligament) and back (degenerative disc disease), and his anxiety, VA doctors initially denied that his body or mind were damaged by his service time, Serrano said.

The VA agreed that he suffered from "ringing in the ears," rated him as 10 percent disabled, and cut him a monthly $130 disability check, he said. In October, the VA increased that disability rating to 60 percent after doctors formally diagnosed Serrano with "major depression," he said.

"He graduated from school, got a job, an apartment, and now he’s helping veterans. That makes me proud."

His slip into temporary homelessness came after he crashed his motorcycle in April 2012, Serrano said.

When he was discharged from the hospital, he was too injured to appeal to hiring managers or to qualify for unemployment compensation, he said, but he was not injured in enough to access government disability funds. Today, he uses a cane to walk.

He scraped by for a time on his $130-a-month VA checks, food stamps and savings. But in October 2012, he was evicted from his apartment. Serrano and his wife, Emily — then about four months pregnant — initially stayed with family east of L.A. But they worried about wearing out their welcome while bedding down on relatives' couches. Soon, they chose to sleep in their car.

"We’d look for areas like 24 Hour Fitness or Wal-Mart, where nobody would come through the parking lot looking at the vehicles, where we wouldn't be conspicuous."

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Eventually, he seemed to run out of places to wait out the worst phase of his life. In August 2013, he and Emily retreated to an empty hallway at the Long Beach, California VA hospital, just seeking a quiet spot to plot a next move. When Emily left to use a bathroom, a man glimpsed Serrano staring off from his chair.

Joe Leal, an Iraq veteran, knew exactly what he was seeing.

"I could tell, he had a loss of hope," said Leal, founder of the Vet Hunters, a nonprofit group of ex-military members who use their combat skills to find homeless veterans in L.A. and link them to services.

He first steered Serrano to a veterans' support group. Later, he donated a Chevy Tahoe to the veteran to replace a dead car.

"It was a chain reaction," Leal said. "He graduated from school, got a job, an apartment, and now he’s helping veterans. That makes me proud."

Leal knows he's on the front line of the issue. Los Angeles has more homeless veterans than any other U.S. city, an estimated 6,000. But he takes a more optimistic view of the solving the problem, thanks to Serrano.

"There are a lot of veterans who are now feeling what he did, a loss of hope," Leal said. "But, as he proved, just hang in there, because there are veterans helping veterans, helping them navigate their way out."