“So many of us come back broken”: Homeless veterans talk about why this happens

Jan. 10, 2018, 6:45 a.m. ·

U.S. Navy veteran Terry Hamilton receives a new coat during the VA Stand Down event in Omaha. (Photo by Mike Tobias, NET News)

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Later this month outreach workers will conduct an annual “point-in-time” count of the country’s homeless population. In Nebraska and nationwide they’ll find a disproportionate number of military veterans.

U.S. Navy veteran Sandra Fuller gets information about housing programs at the recent VA Stand Down event in Omaha (All photos by Mike Tobias, NET News)

Homeless Veterans

According to the 2017 Homeless Assessment report from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the point-in-time count in January of 2017 found 40,056 veterans experiencing homelessness in the United States. This represented a slight increase from the previous year but a 45 percent decline from 2009. Additional statistics:

  • Most homeless veterans were male (90.6%)
  • 56.8% were white; 33.1% were black
  • Nearly half were in major cities (48%)
  • 174 were in Nebraska

  • "Those struggles really impact how they get along in society"

    When it comes to reducing the number of homeless veterans “we are making progress,” said Kerry Miller-Loos, coordinator of the health care for homeless veterans program for the Department of Veterans Affairs Nebraska-Western Iowa Health Care System.

    Nebraska outside of Lincoln and Omaha has received certification for meeting federal benchmarks for identifying and being able to provide shelter for all homeless veterans who want it. Overall, the state has reduced the number of homeless veterans to fewer than 200, based on a point-in-time count last year.

    Still, veterans are more likely than others to experience homelessness. “I think PTSD plays a role in that,” Miller-Loos said. “Some of the struggles that they're dealing with don't coincide with the average person. I think those struggles really impact how they get along in society and how they're able to maintain.

    “It’s people who maybe have been in the workforce, have lost their job, and from there weren't able to find additional work and then lost their apartment. You have people who struggle with addiction and mental health and have not been able to secure housing or maintain housing because of that addiction. We operate under a housing-first philosophy where we feel that housing can help in a lot of areas of a person's life. So we don't require complete treatment or to be on medications or whatever it might be in order to get housing. We know it's easier once they're housed to help them access those services.”

    I asked Miller-Loos what she’d like people to understand about people who are homeless. “They're not scary. They're human beings who need help,” she said. “Sometimes the way in which they ask for that may not be the way that we would prefer, but they're people who really need the support. So, not to necessarily be afraid of that. It's also important to help them make the connection to the right people, not to decide you're going to go out and be a social worker for a day and try to solve their problems.”

U.S. Marine Corps veteran Andy Lowe receives a free immunization during the VA Stand Down event.

U.S. Army veteran Raymond Lawson gets information at the VA Stand Down event.

More than 100 veterans attended the VA Stand Down event in Omaha in November. It was one of more than 350 such events held nationwide last year.

Additional NET News Stories

How one Marine helped another get home and a look at homeless veterans in Nebraska - Dec. 2014

Homeless in Nebraska project - Feb./Mar. 2016

A Trip to "The Jungle": The Story of Two Homeless Couples who live by the Missouri River - Feb. 2015

Counting and Caring for Nebraska's Homeless Population - Feb. 2015

On a Friday before Thanksgiving a large gym at a small college in Omaha is loud and crowded. There are men and women, 30-year-olds and 60-year-olds. Black and white. Some with little education, some with college degrees. About a hundred people who don’t have a lot in common, except they served in our military. And they’ve been homeless.

They’re at a U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs event that gets homeless vets in the door and connected with a wide range of services. More than 350 of these so-called “Stand Down” events were held throughout the country last year, seven in Nebraska.

We asked several of the veterans attending this Stand Down to share their stories.

Raymond Lawson - U.S. Army 1980-82

Lawson was an Army infantry soldier in the early 1980s, stationed in Hawaii for a while. Something happened, Lawson calls it “unnecessary,” that led to a discharge that restricts his military benefits. I asked him what life has been like since then.

“Well, off and on jobs,” he said. “I’ve had a few, I’ve had a few jobs. I’ve had a few good jobs.”

He’s also been unemployed and says a workplace injury left him unable to lift more than 10 pounds. He’s now on disability. Lawson said he used to drink and “smoke a little weed” but doesn’t do either anymore.

In the 1990s he lived on the streets in Omaha for a couple years. “Lazyness, basically,” he explained. “I did that to myself, you know. And not wanting to work. I didn’t think I needed to, but then I realized I had to work, so I got myself out of that situation. I started working.”

When we met Lawson he’d just come back to Omaha from southern Illinois, leaving an apartment he said made him sick. “Threw-up through the course of a day, inhaling black mold and the smell of sewage,” he said. “So I didn’t pay the rent. Couldn’t find anybody to rent to me because of the background of being discharged from the service. They run that background check on you and I’m screwed, basically. So I feel I have a better chance in Omaha, so I came back.”

When we talked in November Lawson was living in a local homeless shelter. “I’ll be here for a minute, you know. I’ll manage, I’ll make it,” he said.

Sandra Fuller - U.S. Navy 1995-2000

When we met Fuller she had just finished a Veterans Affairs drug addiction program and was living in an emergency shelter in Omaha. “That’s my goal. That’s just my number one thing right now, is just getting out of shelter,” she told us.

Fuller was an electrician in the Navy for five years, working on F-14 Tomcat fighters at bases in Virginia and California. She got out in 2000. “When I got out of the military I had my first son. I got introduced to meth.”

Fuller said it led to her living on the streets of Omaha for a while.

“I don’t know. I don’t know what caused it,” Fuller said. “The mental condition after I got out of the military. I don’t know if it was from the military or what. We’re trying to figure that out. We don’t know. So meth was a way to stop the nightmares and stop the condition. The mental condition. And I’ve been battling it ever since. I get 3 and a half years sober, then I relapse. This is the first time I’ve had Navy, or military help. The VA, this is the first time I’ve gone for help with them. So it’s totally a different avenue, we’re trying it this way.”

Fuller said it wasn’t easy being a woman in the military, and talked of “rampant” sexual abuse when she was in. “There’s so many women that are hurt physically and mentally in the military. And it’s just missed. It’s just missed. Because you’re just so afraid to say anything when you’re in the military because you’re supposed to be strong.”

Terry Hamilton - U.S. Navy 1978-1982

“Challenging” is how Hamilton described his life after the military, where he said he worked in operations and management and was stationed in Japan.

After the military he worked in some “good” government jobs over the years. But was also homeless for a while. “Misfortune,” he said. “It happens to anyone. It can happen to anyone. We can’t really tell one day from another. There are some things in this world we just have to accept.”

When we spoke Hamilton had been living for two years in Victory Apartments, an Omaha facility that provides affordable housing for veterans. “It’s been a nice arrangement. I’ve grown accustomed to being there,” he said, adding that more places like Victory are needed for veterans. “There’s not enough of them. The shelters are full because there’s no housing issues being addressed. And if they do that, that would be the most honorable thing for the fellows out here. And the females, women as well.”

“Right now, I’m doing fine. I have no complaints,” Hamilton said.

Malachi Black - U.S. Army 2002-2003

Black looks and talks the part of a 30-something young professional. He joined the Army shortly after 9-11 and was stationed in Kentucky and Virginia, but was only in for a year.

“I got out because I basically got hit by a drunk driver, was unable to continue to do my job so a lot for me was about rehabilitation, being able to learn how to walk again,” he said. “So for me it was a really turbulent time and just a lot of basically not much going on or many opportunities.”

Black moved around a lot. Soul searching and job searching.

“I moved to Texas, was looking to get a job and wanted to get back into doing computer work, and I hadn’t done that in a while. Had been down in Texas for the last couple months, hadn’t been able to find a job, and so consequently used up my resources and had to decide to come back here to look for a job, so this has kind of been more of a transition until I can find a job and be able to acquire enough money to find a place. So it’s kind of put me in this situation.”

When we talked, that situation was living in the Open Door Mission.

I asked Black about a large ring on his hand. It’s a class ring celebrating the theology degree he earned from Xavier University in Cincinnati. “This ring for me is just very symbolic for me that I’ve gone through a lot of adversity,” he said. “And whenever I feel like giving up or feeling like things are like hopeless or not going to work out, I can just look at my ring and just be reminded that I’m always more than my situations and things that are going on.”

Andy Lowe - U.S. Marine Corps 1982-1989

Lowe said he worked in supply and was stationed in Hawaii for a while. He currently lives in a house in his hometown of Omaha and is on disability. He talked about his struggles after leaving the military.

“I was homeless for a while, in California,” he said. “I was working when I got out of the service and things go wrong for some reason. Homeless for a while, got back on my feet. I lost my job. I didn’t know too many people in California where I was staying. I didn’t come back to Omaha, you know, until 1996. Just pretty much on my own, you know.”

Why are there so many homeless veterans?

A one-night count found 40,000 homeless veterans in the U.S. last year. This was up slightly from a year earlier but down 45 percent from 2009. The count found 174 homeless veterans in Nebraska. For a wide range of reasons veterans like those we talked with at the VA Stand Down event in Omaha continue to be over represented in the homeless population. Here is what the veterans we talked with said about veterans being more likely than civilians to be homeless.

“We try to come back home and that’s where sometimes we have problems. It’s like the cross between the two worlds,” Hamilton said.

“There’s a lot of misapprehensions about military guys. We have some campaigns. And people are privy to certain things,” Hamilton added. “Really a lot of people who, you know, certainly don’t understand us. Let alone want us around. Due to their fear. We’re not bad guys. We just go through changes.”

“It’s different,” Fuller said. “You get out, you’re lost kind of. You’re part of something, and then you get out and then you’re kind of not.”

“Drugs and alcohol,” Lawson said. “Certain kind of drugs they use. Alcohol that they drink. They drink and use daily, all day.”

“There’s a lot of, lot of break down and disfunction within families, you know, after someone has served,” Black said. “I think serving in the military has a lot of psychological effects on you, and really challenges you in an emotional way to be able to then go back into civilian life and be able to manage, whether it’s just being able to get along with your family or being able to be like in a workplace without having PTSD effects. Or other just challenges of trying to kind of, this is how you live in civilian world and this is how you live in military world.

“I got out in ’03, and at that time it was, ‘here’s your sheet of paper of things that you need to do to get out.’ And then kind of like, ‘good luck,’” Black added. “And then, I kind of had to hunt and ask around about, ‘so how do I find this and how do I do this.’ I think they’re doing a lot better with at least directing people to the VA right away to get eligible for health care and services and things like that.”

“A lot of that post-traumatic stress (disorder),” Lowe said. “They just go through situations, you know.”

“So many of us come back broken. Come back, you know mentally broken, physically broken,” Fuller said.