Originally created 04/28/97

A home for veterans



Johnny Benning was sitting on the couch in his parent's living room when the telephone shrilled.

The 50-year-old former soldier walked into the bedroom that wouldn't be his for much longer. He dropped his head and called the Department of Veterans Affair Medical Center in Augusta seeking admission and medication for depression, knowing that when he left the hospital, he would have no home.

But in January, just as he was preparing to be released from the hospital to a life on the streets, Mr. Benning found housing through Professional Service Enterprise, a nonprofit outreach group that will open a transitional shelter for homeless veterans later this month.

The two-story De'Borah Home for Veterans at 2734 Milledgeville Road will provide long-term transitional housing for 12 male and female veterans, while counselors help them heal psychological wounds and prepare for jobs and life beyond homelessness. The home is named for a judge from antiquity who sought to bring hope to the poor.

"It's for any of the veterans that do not have a place to stay," said the Rev. Christopher Johnson, executive director of Professional Service Enterprise. "Everybody deserves a nice, safe, comfortable place to live."

Professional Service Enterprise, which began as an outreach ministry of the New Testament Church of Jesus Christ in Augusta, now operates eight transitional homes and 20 apartments for the homeless. The organization also offers job training, child care service and first-time home buyers' assistance for the needy.

De'Borah Home, a cozy bungalow with a huge yard, was formerly a shelter for abused children. It has been painted, renovated and newly refurnished to accommodate the homeless veterans. They should begin moving in later this month, as soon as a sprinkler system is installed.

Most of the residents will stay at the house for six to nine months, long enough to find a job and a home of their own.

At De'Borah Home, veterans will be encouraged to work during the day. Volunteers and full-time staff at the house will drive them to jobs, interviews, counseling sessions and doctor's appointments. Those who don't have jobs will spend at least 3 1/2 hours every day looking for work, then will return home in the afternoon for job readiness classes and chores around the house, the Rev. Johnson said.

"We're trying to get people on their feet as quickly as possible," he said.

According to estimates from the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans, about 275,000 veterans are homeless on any night and twice that number experience homelessness over the course of a year. It is believed that veterans generally account for a fourth to a third of a city's homeless population.

Most of them are men who served their country during the Vietnam War. Most have high school degrees and have worked within the past year. Some of them, like Mr. Benning, are haunted by combat flashbacks and images of innocent bodies pocked with bullet holes, and find themselves unable to cope with the war waging in their mind. Others turn to drugs and alcohol to wash away the memories and deaden the pain.

Last year, social workers at Augusta's VA hospitals provided services for 200 homeless veterans, but many counselors and formerly homeless believe that number represents only a fraction of this city's homeless war heroes.

"In the hospital today, both VA hospitals, there's at least 50 to 75 patients that are about to face this," said Mr. Benning, who hopes to reach other veterans by volunteering at De'Borah Home. "There are people I've seen leaving the VA hospital with no where to go."

In a world where veterans make up about a third of the homeless population, places like De'Borah Home that deal specifically with veterans' problems and their recovery are rare.

In Los Angeles, where 24,000 homeless veterans live, there are only three such programs, said Stephanie Hardy, acting executive director of L.A. Vets, which operates a 466-bed transitional housing and economic development center.

Yet, these types of centers seem to offer the smartest, most efficient and therapeutically sound treatment for homeless veterans.

"What this does is consolidate all of our services, and it strengthen what we're able to deliver," said Reba Brown, homeless coordinator for the Augusta VA.

"Part of the reason they're homeless relates to their service" in the military, said Linda Boone, executive director of the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans in Washington, D.C. "Veterans tend to be real independent and many of them function much better and recover much quicker in an environment that (includes) other veterans."

About the home

De'Borah Home for Veterans is located at 2734 Milledgeville Road. Veterans should begin moving into the home at the end of the month, as soon as a sprinkler system is installed. For housing referrals, call Professional Service Enterprise at 774-0937.