2000 Homeless Vets on the Streets of San Francisco

November 11th, 2008 - by admin

C.W. Nevius / San Francisco Chronicle – 2008-11-11 22:12:57


SF a Good Place to Look at the Plight of Vets
C.W. Nevius / San Francisco Chronicle

SAN FRANCISCO (November 11, 2008) — All across the country this morning there will be Veterans Day parades, fluttering flags and heartfelt speeches. We will tell our servicemen and women how much we appreciate their sacrifice, remind everyone that service to our country is the hallmark of democracy and lament the passing of those who sacrificed their lives.

Someone will play taps.

And James Holmes, who served in the 82nd Airborne from 1975 to 1978, will be waking up in an armchair at a shelter for homeless people.

“I spent the last four nights in a chair, one night on the ground in Golden Gate Park and two nights in a (shelter) bed,” he said.

It is not a surprise to hear that we are failing our veterans, that they need our help and we are letting them down. After years of pouring millions of dollars into housing and social service programs, the system is still overtaxed and painfully slow. And given the last seven years of war, there are many more homeless vets on the way.

If you’d like to pick a spot to highlight the problem, San Francisco would be an excellent choice. Bobby Rosenthal, a coordinator for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, said there are an estimated 2,000 homeless veterans living in the city. And according to Wanda Heffernon of the local group Swords to Plowshares, that represents between a quarter and a third of the city’s total homeless population.

That makes sense when you consider that, according to a 2006 study cited by the nonprofit National Coalition for Homeless Veterans, California had 49,724 homeless vets – the most of any state. New York was No. 2, with a little more than 21,000.

When I met Holmes on Monday, he was sitting in the VA clinic on Fourth Street, filling in the daily crossword puzzle. He’s a tall, 51-year-old vet with a ponytail and gold-rim aviator glasses. He said he was in long-range reconnaissance, trained to drop behind enemy lines and come back with information.

“I was real good at my job, but not so good as a soldier,” Holmes said. “I was great at the sneaking stuff, but I couldn’t shine my boots.”

Like a lot of vets, Holmes felt a little untethered when he left the structure of military service. But he went back home to Des Moines, Iowa, found a job working on a golf course and married a local girl named Toni, a hair stylist.
Tragic car wreck

“I loved her,” Holmes said. “Still do. I was at work when her sister called and said there had been a car wreck. She said she was gone. Dead. I didn’t handle it that well.”

Many vets find that a jolt in their everyday life sends them spinning. Holmes can remember bits of the funeral and odd images from the next few weeks. He also remembers the drinking and the deep depression. He fell back on a familiar coping mechanism.

“I think what the Army did was teach me to survive, alone, with just a little pack on my back,” he said. “Over and over, I just put my stuff on my back and walked away.”

It is a restlessness that seems to uniquely afflict veterans.

Michael Garcia was in the VA clinic on Monday, too. In many ways he’s a success story. When he left the military in 1992 after service that took him to fight in Lebanon, he kicked around the country, constantly on edge. A loud noise could set him off, he said, and he was “too dysfunctional” to make it in his former life in San Jose.

“I was heavy into alcohol and then into meth,” he said. “I reached the point where I said I was either going to end up killing myself, killing someone else or going to prison.”
Desperate step

In desperation, he turned up at the San Francisco VA Medical Center. Drug and alcohol treatment was available, there were programs that helped him find housing, and he found some structure to his life. But like so many vets, most of all he craved one thing – “somebody to talk to,” he said.

That’s why there always seem to be men – one third of the national homeless population are male veterans – hanging out in the VA clinic on Fourth Street. They say they are coming for the free doughnuts, but many stick around after the pastries are gone.

“Everybody wants to belong to something,” Holmes said. “The VA is the only thing I belong to. These are your buddies. You can trust them – maybe not with a $5 bill – but you can talk to them.”

The Iraq and Afghanistan wars have seemed to speed everything up. After Vietnam, veterans began to report post-traumatic stress disorder five or 10 years after they left the service. Now it seems to be happening sooner, requiring more help sooner.

At the Fourth Street clinic, manager Anita Yoskowitz said they are turning hallways into offices for case managers. The incoming veterans are expected to be younger, more stressed and more numerous.

An old Army hand like Holmes is just trying to find his footing. He needs a tuberculosis test before he can get a bed in a shelter, but the paperwork seems to be taking forever. With his backpack and his shaving kit, he’s expecting to sleep in a chair for the foreseeable future.

Just before I left the clinic, I asked Holmes what he thought of when someone said Veterans Day.

“Pride,” he said. “Unity. And sorrow.”

C.W. Nevius’ column runs Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. E-mail him at cwnevius@sfchronicle.com.
© 2008 Hearst Communications Inc.

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