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Homelessness Harder On America's Veterans

NEAL CONAN, host: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Tomorrow is Veterans Day, and it will find tens of thousands of veterans homeless. Many of those people are veterans of the - excuse me. Veterans make up just nine percent of the U.S. population, yet nearly 15 percent of the country's homeless adults are veterans. Many suffer from mental illness or struggle with alcohol or drug abuse. Many more served in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Veterans, if you've been homeless, how did you get there? Our number is 800-989 - email talk@npr.org. You can just call - also join the conversation at our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

The overwhelming majority of those veterans are men, but there is a rising number of homeless female veterans, Renata Bree Cain(ph) among them. Until four days ago, she was living out of her car. She joins us on the phone from Fayetteville in North Carolina. And nice to have you with us today.

RENATA CAIN: Thank you, it's an honor to be with you.

CONAN: How did you end up homeless?

CAIN: It was kind of a misfortune. I was going to school. I was living off of my GI Bill. My VA rep at my school quit, and they didn't have a replacement or a stand-in, and over the course of about four months, that was the source of my livelihood. I eventually had to move out of my apartment, and that's where it all began.

CONAN: So moved out of your apartment. I assume you tried to stay with friends or family?

CAIN: Yes, sir, I stayed with one of my - actually both of my sisters. They really didn't have space for me, and they tried to help as much as I could, but, you know, I eventually got into my car just to not put anybody out. You know, I didn't want to be, you know, my sister in California was in a studio, and my sister in Virginia only had a one-bedroom, and they have a child. So it was really tight.

And I just wanted to do the right thing, and it's no one's fault. You know, I didn't want to put anybody out. So I just went in my car and tried to, you know, figure out what I could do next.

CONAN: And how long were you living in your car?

CAIN: I want to say I was in my car for about six months.

CONAN: That's tough.

CAIN: Well, I mean, it wasn't during the winter. So it could have been worse. So it's about to start getting cold. So thank God I'm in a shelter now, you know, and it's beautiful here.

CONAN: A place called Jubilee House?

CAIN: Yes, sir.

CONAN: Now, that's a transitional home for homeless veterans. Now that's a small percentage nationwide, a much bigger percentage there in the Fayetteville area.

CAIN: Yes, and it's beautiful. It is state of the art. Everything is beautiful.

CONAN: And where do you see yourself a year from now?

CAIN: A year from now I'm going to have a job. I'm going to be in a house, and I'm going to be happy.

CONAN: Renata Bree Cain, best wishes, and we hope those wishes come true.

CAIN: Thank you so much. It was great speaking with you.

CONAN: Renata Bree Cain, a veteran who's now at Jubilee House in Fayetteville, North Carolina. Steve Peck joins us now from member station KUHF in Houston. He's president of the United States Veterans Initiative, a group that serves homeless vets. And nice to have you with us today.

STEVE PECK: Thank you very much.

CONAN: And as we hear with Bree Cain's story, unlike previous generations of vets, many of those veterans don't - that are homeless don't fit the stereotype of people who are sleeping on grates or under an overpass.

PECK: No, they're not. The ones that we have encountered - and we've at this point encountered several hundred over the last couple of years - are similar to her story. They're sleeping in their cars. Some of them are going to community college and sleeping in their cars or sleeping with friends. But the - most of the ones that we're seeing have untreated post-traumatic stress disorder.

So they - it begins to interfere with their lives, and their families don't know what to do with them. And they don't want to burden people. So they end up in their car or sleeping in someone's garage.

CONAN: I can understand how that can be a problem. But the majority of people who serve in the military don't see combat. Are the majority of the people you see people who are combat veterans?

PECK: The ones that we're seeing, 100 percent of them are combat vets. So they have PTSD. And that really is what brought them down in the first place. And you add to that the fact that many of them don't have job skills that will allow them to get into this workforce. Maybe they're dislocated, they've discharged from someplace other than home.

Perhaps they don't, for whatever reason, don't want to go home, they want to be on their own, they want to be independent, and they find themselves in a city without resources, and then if that PTSD kicks in, it can lead to their becoming homeless.

CONAN: It can also contribute to substance abuse problems as they try to self-medicate.

PECK: Absolutely. Well over half of the guys that we encounter have substance-abuse problems. And we had a guy come into our program a couple years ago, and that guy named Greg(ph), whose father, a Vietnam vet, brought him in because Greg was having a real challenge reintegrating.

He had had a pretty significant combat experience in Afghanistan and lost a lot of friends over there, and kind of one incident really stuck with him. He was in a convoy and about to take off. He was in the lead vehicle of a convoy, and a friend of his wanted to trade places with him. So Greg moved about six vehicles back.

The convoy took off, and about 20 minutes later, an explosion rocked the front of that convoy, and his friend was killed. So he was wracked with guilt and why him and not me. And so that, coupled - that survivor's guilt, which is not uncommon among combat veterans, combined with all the combat that he had seen led him to get hooked on methamphetamines because he didn't want to go to sleep and experience the nightmares that he was experiencing as a result of his combat.

CONAN: And that can spiral downwards pretty quickly. We want to hear from those of you who are veterans who have spent some time homeless. Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. And we'll start with Chuck(ph), Chuck with us from Riverton in Wyoming.

CHUCK: Hi there.


CHUCK: How are you?

CONAN: I'm good, thanks.

CHUCK: Hey, mine was a - I came back from Vietnam in the late - in '69 I got out of the Marines, and I was - went through the long version. The short version is I went through a long spiral down until - into alcohol and drugs and a couple of broken marriages, and, you know, the whole thing. And finally I ended going to - running from myself. I took off and went to Georgia.

And I thought I was going to heal myself. The trouble is, I went along. You know, I took myself with me.

CONAN: And when you got there, you found yourself, yeah.

CHUCK: There I was, yeah. And I went through a period there, the first year I was there, I was arrested five times, trying to get a cop to shoot me, I think. And finally I ended up in prison, and then when I got out of there, I kind of lived in the woods for a while and lived - I had - I'm a carpenter. So I lived on some job sites.

And finally what helped me is I got sober. And being incarcerated helped me get sober. And once I got sober, then I started to get my head around it and work my way out, and it took me about five - eight years, and I got, came back home. And, you know, my kids accept me now, and everything's good.

And the one thing, you know, the only thing is once I discovered acceptance of myself and what I had seen and that sort of thing, then I was able to face my life, you know, and I'm still kind of - everybody says I'm odd, but, you know, I live out in the country, 25 miles out, and I don't have electricity or running water now. I'm still kind of homeless, but I've got a house, you know.


CONAN: Well, there is a distinction, especially as wintertime comes there in Wyoming.

CHUCK: Well, I've been out here seven years in the same place. So, you know, it's not like I'm under a bridge. But the thing is, once I accepted what I'd been through and accepted that I had, you know, that I could either face it or not, you know, then I kind of got over it, and I do a lot of AA things and that sort of thing.

CONAN: You can hear some of the AA there. But Steve Peck, you're a Vietnam vet. I'm sure you've heard Chuck's story you before.

PECK: I am, and a fellow Marine.

CONAN: And a fellow Marine. So yeah.

PECK: Yeah, that is a very common story. We have just some heartbreaking stories of Vietnam veterans who suffered with their PTSD for 20 or 30 years, and, you know, they never held a job for more than a year. And it just, it is heartbreaking when you think that that is a life that really has been lost because they didn't seek treatment.

And when we came back in the '60s and '70s, treatment wasn't as readily available. They weren't - you know, they didn't really recognize PTSD, and it was an unpopular war. So a lot of these guys just kind of sucked it up and stumbled along for many, many years. And so we're determined that this won't happen with this new generation of veterans.

CONAN: Chuck, he talks about lives lost, sounds like yours is a life found, too.

CHUCK: Well, my life was found, and I'm working, and I've got my little place and my dogs, and I do oil paintings. I found art is kind of cathartic for me. You know, I do oil paintings, and I discovered the Internet, and, you know, it's kind of...

PECK: Well, you really have something to offer other veterans. We have a young veterans' program, and some of our Vietnam veterans are mentoring them, talking with them about what they've been through. And once you've - now that you've found yourself, you really have something to offer people. So I'm glad you found yourself.

CONAN: Chuck, congratulations.

CHUCK: Thanks.

CONAN: Steve Peck, a lot of veterans, people who think of themselves as tough and self-reliant, reluctant to ask for help.

PECK: It's true. Of all the young men coming back in this war, and in past wars, as well, fewer than half are seeking treatment. I think it's about 40 percent actually seek treatment. So there's 60 percent of them out there who have undiagnosed PTSD.

The majority of them are going to be all right, but some of them are going to be disturbed to the point where it's going to have a real negative impact on their lives. So we have a prevention program now, called Outside the Wire, which is reaching out into the community colleges to offer them confidential counseling so that we'll catch them - we want to catch them early. We want to catch them before they become homeless and fall into addiction.

CONAN: We're talking with veterans today. If you've been homeless, how did you get there? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. The VA set a goal of 2015 to end homelessness among vets. Up next, Susan Angell with the Department of Veterans Affairs joins us with an update on that plan. So stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.


CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. We're talking about the problem of homelessness among military veterans. A recent survey shows that homeless vets remain homeless longer than their non-veteran counterparts. More and more of them served in Iraq or Afghanistan or both.

Veterans, if you've been homeless, how did you get there? Our phone number, 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. You can join the conversation at our website. Go to npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. Our guest is Steve Peck, president and CEO of United States Veterans Initiative, a group that serves homeless vets, and a Vietnam veteran himself, or former Marine.

Also with us here in Studio 3A is Susan Angell, executive director for Veterans Homeless Initiatives at the Department of Veterans Affairs. Thanks very much for coming in.

SUSAN ANGELL: Thank you.

CONAN: And that promise we mentioned, end homelessness for veterans by 2015, how's it going?

ANGELL: It's actually going very well. We have started so many new programs this year to not only end homelessness but to stop it from ever happening. We've got some creative programs. Our supportive services for veterans and their families, this is VA's first effort and ability to actually help veterans and their families before they become homeless or if they become homeless to rapidly rehouse them.

We - it's built on a foundation of case management, and it's a very veteran-centric program. If a veterans needs some assistance with bringing their rent to currency so they can stay in the home they have, we can help them with that. If they've lost that home, we can help them get into a new one.

If they need child care, assistance with transportation and jobs, we can do all of that through this new program. So we're just very grateful for the resources we've been given to start new programs like that. Another new program we have is called the Homeless Veteran Supported Employment Program.

Unemployment is an issue for many of our homeless veterans. So we have hired nearly 400 formerly homeless veterans to assist currently homeless veterans in getting jobs, keeping jobs. They can do job-coaching, help them with resumes.

One of the things that we learned from Steve's generation of Vietnam vets, that vet-to-vet connection is so important and has so much credibility with each other. So we know that this program is going to help a lot of our unemployed veterans find jobs and keep them.

CONAN: As I understand it, the numbers five years ago, 400,000 homeless veterans, more recently 135,000. So there's been some progress.

ANGELL: Well, if I could just put in there the annual report that HUD does. Right now we're at 144,000.

CONAN: Okay.

ANGELL: For 2010, and that's an entire year count. And that's down three percent from the year before.

CONAN: And looking at those numbers, obviously you don't want to perpetuate the stereotype that everybody coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan is somebody who's going to have these kinds of difficulties or somebody who has PTSD. That's not the case. But these men are serious - in serious – can be in serious trouble.

ANGELL: You know, they can be. And probably to get away from that stereotype, a majority of homeless veterans are not combat veterans. Ninety-two percent are the post-Vietnam era. We are seeing our newest Operation Iraqi Freedom, Enduring Freedom and New Dawn, those numbers are starting to tick up in terms of becoming homeless, but we've got prevention programs at five bases where we have a lot of discharges from the military to really do that prevention and catch them before they fall, with health care services, mental health services and other social support services that they might need.

CONAN: Let's get Tony on the line, Tony with us from Phoenix.

TONY: Yeah, I'm here.

CONAN: Go ahead, you're on the air.

TONY: Well, I was homeless for about a year. I was - I did three tours of combat. I was in Panama. I was in the first Gulf War, and I was in the first round of deployments in the latest Iraq war, and came home, was too proud to say that I was hurting, started drinking heavy.

My wife divorced me. I lost the house, lost my car. My mother and my son found me living in a park.

CONAN: I can't imagine what that was like.

TONY: Well, they dragged me to the VA, and it if wasn't for the VA, I would probably not be alive, to be honest with you. I found some good therapists, got into a program, bought my first truck again this past Monday, believe it or not.

CONAN: Congratulations on that.

TONY: So I know what it's like, and I know what it can do to you, and I hope these guys that are coming back aren't feeling so tough that they don't need help, because I can tell you I don't - I don't - I see stories about what they're going through as far as their style of combat, which is a lot worse than what I had to endure, but at the time I thought it was the worst thing I'd ever seen.

But I didn't have to worry about, you know, walking up on a car and having it explode. At least for the most part I could see my enemy.

CONAN: Tony, thanks very much for the call. Drive carefully, okay?

TONY: I will, thank you very much.

CONAN: Steve Peck, too proud to ask for help.

PECK: We hear that so often. In the - when you're in the military, you are really taught to soldier on. You just - you know, in the combat situation, you have to follow orders, you have to act cohesively as a unit, and you've just got to tough it out. So to undo that is sometimes challenging. It's very, very difficult to come back to the U.S.

You've been though combat. You've survived. To suddenly say, gosh, I can't handle what I'm going through - so they – so they, they stay quiet, and sometimes it'll take years to get them in. But these guys who come back and have recovered really have something to offer and are an example for, as you said, for other veterans to come forward and get the help that they need.

There is no shame in that.

CONAN: Susan Angell, there has been problems reported with men in active duty and men in separation units, on their way out, getting help for mental problems because, well, they don't want to let the unit down, or sometimes they're ridiculed for asking for help. These - some of these have been documented by our own investigative units. Is the military working on those problems, the cultural problems?

ANGELL: Well, I think they are. I can speak a little bit to the transition part of it. We're working closely with DOD right now on a high-level committee to try to make that transition piece much more useful and relevant to those that are leaving the military right now.

It can be a bit cursory right now, and we're trying to inject more of a risk assessment into that process. If someone is getting ready to leave, and they don't have a job, or if it's clear that their family is decompensating, or if it's clear they have some other issues, they might have PTSD or depression, those are the folks that we really want to catch, and we're working closely with DOD so that we can catch them before they leave and really offer that safety net of care so that we're there; the day they become a veteran, we're there and ready to help them in any way that we can.

CONAN: Let's go next to Benjamin, Benjamin calling from Springfield in - excuse me, Springville in Utah.

BENJAMIN: Hi Neal. So my situation was - I was, like your guests were saying, I was not a combat veteran. I served in the intelligence community, in the Army. And I just got disillusioned with what the government was capable of and what they did. This was before 9/11. Probably if I was post-9/11, I never would have looked at things in that light, but this was before 9/11.

So I got extremely disillusioned and depressed and turned to drugs. And in that situation, I didn't feel like there was somebody in the military, if they had offered me help, that I could take it because those were the people that I didn't trust at the time.

And I was kind of nervous when I was speaking to the screener. I wasn't homeless immediately afterwards. I did have a job when I transitioned out of the military. But that just experience and the downward spiral that I got into, in and out of Walter Reed Medical Center with suicidal thoughts and stuff like that, and that's just affected my entire life.

And I have come to grips with it over the years, but for me mostly it was joining the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-day Saints was where I was able to turn my life around.

CONAN: Well, I'm glad you managed to do that, Benjamin, and thanks very much for the call. Good luck to you.

BENJAMIN: Thank you.

CONAN: And Steve Peck, I wanted to ask you, Vietnam, as you mentioned, an unpopular war and one in which a lot of people in uniform concluded that they weren't really fighting for anything and that it wasn't worth much and that the important thing was to get home alive. And there have been some in Iraq and Afghanistan, not as unpopular, not as many people, but who have reached some kinds of similar conclusions. How does that contribute?

PECK: That disillusionment can certainly contribute to them kind of detaching from society, as he said, not wanting to go to the VA for help. You know, that's the government that sent him to a war he doesn't believe in, and how could they possibly help me. So they really do get into this downward spiral, and it can be a subtle, day-to-day process, and by the time they get homeless, there's a whole bunch of things wrong. They're unemployed, maybe they've been unemployed for a considerable period of time, maybe they've fallen to substance abuse and depression, and they've detached themselves from a social network, which is the very network that's going to help them back into the mainstream.

So those veterans whose families come and find them are very fortunate. And quite often it is a founding member who convinces them that they need to find help. And in our - part of our job is to convince them that that is courageous - asking for help is a courageous thing to do.

CONAN: Let's go next to Leon, Leon with us from Detroit.

LEON: Hi. How are you?

CONAN: I'm good. Thanks.

LEON: I'm a vet. I've been going through a veteran's hospital, which (unintelligible) got a dead end. I got the Agent Orange testing - I'm a Vietnam vet, like I said. I'm reaching dead ends, and I'm tired of fighting. And I don't want to spend another winter in my car. I got a house, but I have lost it to back taxes. I got it back and still can't live in it because the raccoons moved in (unintelligible) in between torn apart. I don't have the finances to build it back up, and it seems like it's a dead end, everything I try to do, you know?

CONAN: Another winter in your car? How long have you been living in your car?

LEON: Off and on, five years. I'd get a flop here and there, friends will let me, but you know, you wear that out. Brother-in-law hates me, mother's done all she can do, and I'm up against the wall.

CONAN: I don't mean to put you on the spot, Susan Angell. Obviously, individual cases. Where is the help for Leon in Detroit?

ANGELL: So, Leon, what I would really recommend for you is to call this number: 1-877-4AID-VET. 4AID-VET. That's a 24/7 number. There are professionals there that can help make a warm handoff and get you the help that you need at your local medical center, and the services that they have. We have a lot that can help you. And if you can just make that call, I know that they'll reach out to you, Leon.

CONAN: Could you repeat the number, please?

ANGELL: Yes. It's...

LEON: Yeah. Could you do it numerally(ph) because I don't have, you know...

CONAN: Numerically, if you would. Yeah.

LEON: ... (unintelligible) OK.


CONAN: It's 1-800 - I can help you with that.

ANGELL: Well, it's 1-877...


ANGELL: ...the number 4AID-VET, 4AID-VET.

CONAN: And we'll have part our crack staff decode that for you, Leon. And I can't possibly do it because - well, I've got all these other things going. But we're going to have that number for you numerically in just a second, he said, staring at his producer.

LEON: All right. I appreciate it.

CONAN: OK. So hang on the line, if you will. And there are people - there are places that somebody will pick up that phone and say, Leon, how can I help you.

ANGELL: There are professionals at the end of that line, 24/7, and they can make contact in any community across the nation and give Leon the kind of help and referral that he can use in his community.

CONAN: And that number is 1-877-424-382 - excuse me...

ANGELL: 3838.

CONAN: ...3838. There you go. So one again, 877...

LEON: 3838?

CONAN: 3838?

LEON: 3838?

CONAN: 3838.


CONAN: All right. Leon, good luck to you.

LEON: Yes, I appreciate this, OK.

CONAN: OK. Thanks very much. We're talking with homeless vets today. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And let's see if we can go next to - this is Brian, and Brian's with us from Saginaw, Michigan.

BRIAN: Hey, Neal. Yeah. I'm a veteran from - it was peacetime Cold War era, '85 to '89. And - but, you know, I was a kid, I got out - I was ready to get out and I, yeah, I had fostered quite an affection for alcohol. And it seems like that's what everybody was supposed to do in the Army, was drink. And so when I got out, I was drinking pretty heavily. And, of course, I went on to many different things, drugs and whatnot. Finally was incarcerated.

When I got out of prison, I was homeless and lived on the street for quite some time. And I just reached a point, you know, it was when I was, you know, I pulled myself up off my bootstraps. I figured I really didn't see any help anywhere, so I just did it myself. And I, you know, went to a homeless shelter and got into some 12-step programs. And once I made that decision, and it wasn't really hard, I was tired of living like I was, I was able to become successful, you know, got a job, got a place and all those things. And now, of course, I'm married and have regular employment. So it was a horrible experience, but in a lot of ways it may have saved my life from the drug abuse and whatnot.

CONAN: Well, Brian, it serves a point to tell your story. And, Steve Peck, I'd like you to weigh in on it. Yes, these can be terrible experiences, but yes, there is a way out.

PECK: There is a way. And some have had discovered by themselves, and some are led to it through visiting a VA or visiting a community-based nonprofit like US Vets. And it doesn't matter which way you – which door you find as long as you walk in to it. And a lot of community-based organizations like ours are trying to partner with the VA, so there's no wrong door. We're all trying to talk to more and more veterans out there. We're trying to enlist the veterans service organizations to work with us so that everyone has an eye out for someone in trouble and can lend them a helping hand and a referral.

CONAN: Brian, good luck to you. Thanks for the call. And I wanted to ask Susan Angell, the vet to vet, you know, different age groups or even the same age group, there is so much credibility to saying, nobody understands what I went through except maybe you. Is that something the veterans administration is trying to incorporate?

ANGELL: Actually, we've incorporated it for over 30 years. We had a program specifically developed for Vietnam veterans and their families called the Vet Center. And a majority of the staff in the Vet Centers were combat veterans, and they were helping each other. We've moved that forward now with the OIF, OEF and OND veterans. We now have the global war on terror veterans that are part of the Vet Center staff.

So we have done everything we can to find that meeting point where our veterans can help other veterans, because they really do a great job. They're so committed to their brothers and sisters. So we have found that one of the best things that we can do to address our veterans right up front.

CONAN: Susan Angell, executive director for Veterans Homeless Initiatives at the Department of Veterans Affairs, with us here in Studio 3A. Thanks very much for your time. I'll let you get back to work. Also Steve Peck was with us, president and CEO of United States Veterans Initiative, a group that serves homeless vets. He joined us from member station KUHF in Houston. Thanks to you.

PECK: Thank you.

CONAN: I'll give that number one more time: 1-877-424-3838. Thanks. And when we come back, we're going to follow a group of the Michigan National Guard from their town in the Upper Peninsula to Afghanistan and back home through a new documentary, "Where the Soldiers Come From." TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.