Now that warmer weather is arriving, the giant tent that was a winter home for 150 veterans is being packed away.
“For most of us, it’s back on the streets,” says Marvin Britton, a former military policeman who’s been crisscrossing the country since leaving the Army in 1971 following three combat tours in Vietnam.
The battered tent, pitched on a Navy parking lot, is reflective of a problem that almost certainly will worsen as more troops come home from Iraq and Afghanistan and leave active duty — there just aren’t enough beds for vets who end up homeless.
“We all feel like we are fighting against a clock,” said Toni Reinis, who runs New Directions Inc., a Los Angeles substance abuse center providing residential and outpatient care for homeless vets.
No one knows for sure how many homeless there are — estimates vary from hundreds of thousands to millions.
Shortage of transitional shelter
According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, there are about 195,000 homeless veterans on any given night. Last fall, the VA estimated a shortfall of 9,600 “transitional” beds for those vets, accommodations intended to serve as a stepping stone from the streets to independent living.
The VA has secured funding for up to 1,800 beds to be added by the end of this year and is seeking $15 million more from Congress for more beds.
“It’s a very, very high priority,” said Peter Dougherty, the VA’s director of homeless programs.
Until 1987, there were no VA-funded programs catering to homeless vets, but now there are more than 200, Dougherty said. The VA employs about 230 outreach workers who specifically look out for homeless veterans and has increased the number of health clinics.
Race against time
Dougherty said the agency’s goal is to catch problems early, before veterans end up on the streets. He said it can take up to eight years and sometimes longer for veterans to exhaust options and end up on the streets.
In the last two years the VA has classified 1,049 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans as being at risk of homelessness. Of those, about 300 ended up losing their homes.
Former Marine Cordney Gordon was one of those recent vets who found himself without a place to live. After one tour in Afghanistan and two in Iraq, he left the military last year and was on the streets months later.
Anger problems, stress and depression plagued him. After his marriage broke down, Gordon, 30, had nowhere to live, became suicidal and ended up in a VA hospital.
“I really thought my life was over with,” he said.
Escondido-based nonprofit Interfaith Community Services found him at the VA hospital and he now lives in one of the group’s VA-funded apartments with three older veterans.
VA funding falls short
Transitional beds like Gordon’s generally are provided by nonprofit or community groups like Interfaith. They receive about $30 a day per veteran from the VA, but looking after each veteran can cost them more than $70, said Reinis. The rest is raised through private grants, individual donations, other governmental sources and fundraising events.
About three-quarters of the veterans who spent the winter in the San Diego tent — many of them Vietnam-era servicemen who, like Britton, are battling substance addiction and psychiatric problems — will again “go bush” for the summer, often living under bridges. Most of the rest will qualify for drug and alcohol rehabilitation programs that provide shelter.
The tent is run by the nonprofit Veterans Village of San Diego as an overflow for its main facility, an old motel with 87 beds that is being transformed into a compound with 224 beds.
“You never leave anyone in the field,” said Veterans Village Al Pavich, a former Navy officer. “You take care of your own.”
U.S. House Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Bob Filner, D-Calif., recently was in town to help celebrate completion of the first phase of the Veterans’ Village expansion, including a new kitchen, counseling center and dining area.
Filner said that while nonprofits like the village do an excellent job looking after homeless veterans, more needs to be done at the national level. He said disorders like post-traumatic stress are going undetected in new veterans, something that also happened with returning Vietnam fighters.
“It’s a scandal, but we are repeating the same mistakes with the Iraq vets,” Filner said. “They come home with severe mental issues, they don’t get any help, then it comes out with domestic violence, then on the job, then loss of a home.”