Conditions dire for homeless veterans

A struggle for survival

Editor's Note: This story was updated to include a reaction from The Salvation Army disputing a comment by an advocate for homeless veterans.

"Edward "Dread" Smith woke up six years ago in terrible pain.

Pain gave way to fear when he discovered his legs didn't work.

Fear turned to frustration as secondary multiple sclerosis turned his life upside down.

In the midst of the turmoil, Smith discovered a group of people who understood his struggles, a class of person he'd had no direct dealings with before.

"They're sincere down there," Smith said of homeless veterans. "To me they're warriors, fighting the elements and discrimination."

About a third of America's homeless are veterans, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Out of those, nearly half served in the Vietnam era. An additional 1.5 million veterans are at risk of becoming homeless because of poverty, lack of support and poor living conditions, according to the VA.

The most recent count of Augusta's homeless, on Jan. 23, found 446 people. Out of those, 76 were veterans, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

The reasons for homelessness vary. Substance abuse and alcoholism factor high on the list. Mental illnesses and unemployment play a part. Often, it's a mix of many things.

"I think they've had life happen to them and now it's finally catching up," said Shirley Lester, who has worked with Augusta's homeless for 15 years. "It's too much to deal with."

Lester works with Mercy Ministries and has also managed Golden Harvest's soup kitchen. In her experience, about 80 percent of the homeless are making an effort to better themselves, 10 percent are stuck in a "pity party" and the rest just aren't sure what direction to head, Lester said.

Regardless of their situation, the conditions are dire.

Out in the elements

Lester talks about one veteran, who goes by the name Surreal, who hasn't really left the war and still talks with his comrades in arms. Another man called Mr. Pork Chop has been hit by a car and been beaten up by a gang of 10 or 12 teenagers in Harrisburg, she said.

Interviews with other veterans who declined to be identified paint a general picture of what happens on the streets.

Living outside carries challenges, but the cooler weather in spring and fall make it bearable. In summer, there's no escaping the oppressive heat, and some medications make veterans more sensitive to heat.

Day shelters keep some veterans out of the sun, but if they can't make it there the downtown library is blessedly cool. The catch is anyone caught falling asleep or without a book on their lap is told to leave. The restrooms are locked to anyone without a library card.

At night, the homeless search for a spot that's safe from prowling drunks and deputies prodding them to keep moving. A good spot -- in the deep shadow of a wall, under a bush -- offers protection, but it also means no one can see them if something should happen.

Veterans keep their head on a swivel and fall back on the same instincts that kept them alive in Afghanistan's Helmand Province or the jungles of Vietnam.

Most veterans interviewed for this story said they would rather sleep outside than in a shelter. While a shelter offers protection from the elements, the homeless still sleep with one eye open to ward off thieves and attacks.

The Salvation Army shelter on Greene Street, known as the "sally," has an alternative outdoor shelter for the slightly intoxicated and anyone who shows up after all the beds are taken. The side building is covered by a roof, but metal bars make up the walls. Tim Hollobaugh, an advocate for veterans, said he's personally spent nights in the "cage" as it's known and witnessed fights. However, Derek Dugan, communications director and Kroc Center coordinator for the Salvation Army, said that the cage is used only as a day shelter.

"The Salvation Army does not allow any intoxicated people on its grounds or in the facility at any time," he added. "Many homeless are angry at being turned away when intoxicated or wish to continue using substances and tend to level accusations of the sort in the story."

Other homeless veterans say they sleep in their cars or trucks. A day's work hauling metal or scrap pays for gas and a bite to eat.

Near constant walking or pushing a wheelchair burns a lot of calories. Finding the food to eat and refuel is a constant mission.

There are several soup kitchens, but what's served isn't always filling. Other times they serve pork or other food people with dietary restrictions can't eat, which means all the time and calories spent getting to the kitchen were wasted.

There is the human threat to contend with, too.

On defense

Exact figures on how often the homeless are attacked are hard to come by. The National Coalition for the Homeless reported 117 incidents in 2009, with 43 fatal. The Richmond County Sheriff's Office doesn't track violence against transients specifically.

In any event, most robberies, rapes or attacks are not reported to authorities.

Veterans are known to carry medicine, which makes them an inviting target for pill-pushers. Those with homes are targeted for the same reason.

Veterans in wheelchairs are the weakest of the herd. Electric wheelchairs are easy to maneuver, but a dead battery or flat tire means being stranded unless they have someone to call for help. That could mean hours stuck in the same spot without food, water, medication or a bathroom break.

The homeless in manual wheelchairs don't have that issue, but they must work harder on navigating cracked sidewalks and dodging cars when a lack of curb cuts forces them into the street.

Regardless of the type of wheelchair, veterans must keep track of who's around them and who could pose a threat. There is no fight or flight for a person in a wheelchair, only fight.

Pushing a wheelchair builds upper-body strength, but electric wheelchair users don't have that advantage. The jar from falling out of the chair in a scuffle can cause spinal cord patients to temporarily lose motion in their arms.

Some veterans have knives in their pockets or guns under their chair seats. They choose to take the risk of inadvertently arming their attackers, but they usually only get one chance to draw their attacker in close and strike.

Guessing the height of an attacker for a police report is difficult when looking up at everyone from a wheelchair. The visually impaired don't even have that option.

Health care issues

All this adds up to constant pressure and stress, which aggravates symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder or other mental conditions. Symptoms are compounded if medicine is stolen, lost or ignored.

The medication and treatment comes from the VA hospital.

With no fixed address and limited access to a phone, it's tough to let a veteran know he has an appointment. Veterans complain about the long hold time on the phone; some don't call at all because they don't have enough minutes available on their phones.

Smith, an Air Force veteran, illustrated his point by calling the VA on his phone. The hold music quit after about five minutes when someone picked up the phone. There was no greeting, just the sounds of the hospital; apparently the phone was left off the cradle.

"It's just not user-friendly," Smith said about the hospital.

Robin Brown, the acting public affairs officer for the VA, said in an e-mail that there are social workers trained to work with homeless veterans and assist them with their benefits.

The VA has joined up with two personal care homes to house homeless men and women.

"Our goal is to empower each one enough not to return to homelessness," Brown said.

'Nothing in return'

On a recent afternoon, Eugene Wallace, an Army veteran who grew up in Waynesboro, sat under a shade tree across the street from the Salvation Army.

He enlisted in 1972 to see what the war was all about. Eight months later, he broke his shoulder and suffered permanent injury.

There's a hitch in his voice when he talks about his return stateside.

"I was mad, mad at the United States," he said. "I feel like we put our lives on the line but get nothing in return."

VA hospital arrests common