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November 11, 2013
Veterans, Homelessness, and the Long Road Back

by Hamilton Nolan

Curtis Peterson, a veteran of Operation Desert Storm, lost his civilian job in Georgia in the recession. So he got on a bus to New York. Once here, he promptly had a stroke. Today, he considers himself one of the lucky ones.

Where do veterans go when their time in the military ends? They go all over. Some come home to stable jobs and loving families. Some struggle with PTSD, depression, and joblessness. Some end up homeless. Some of those are forever lost to the streets. But others find their way to a bed on the upper floor at 89 Porter Avenue in Bushwick, Brooklyn, where The Doe Fund runs a program designed to help homeless veterans find health care, a job, and ultimately a place to live. A year ago, Curtis Peterson came here for help. This month, he started working at The Doe Fund as a supervisor. Last week, I went to an early Veteran's Day celebration at the center, to see where some American soldiers end up.

Peterson, 51, grew up in Hunts Point in the South Bronx. At age 18, he found himself working in the frozen food section of a grocery store and staring at what seemed like a long life with no opportunities. So he joined the military. "I left to see the world," he said.

And he did. He spent time in Germany before being reassigned to a base in Georgia. He became a sergeant, specializing in training soldiers for chemical warfare. To teach troops about proper use of gas masks, he would shepherd them one by one into a room filled with tear gas, where they had to remove their gas masks and say their name and serial number before walking out. Directly outside the exit door stood a tree. "Every time they came out the door," Peterson said, shaking his head, "they hit that tree."

In 1991, after Desert Storm, Peterson left the military. He married and stayed in Georgia, grinding through a decade of dead end jobs. When the financial crisis hit, he was working in a shipyard. He lost his job, thanks to the economy. After that, he lost his car, his house, and his wife in short order. Seeing nothing left for himself in Georgia, he decided to return to New York City and stay on a friend's couch until he could find something new.

He got to New York on a Sunday. On Tuesday morning, he woke up unable to move the right side of his body. He'd had a stroke. Soon afterwards, he had a heart attack. Both, doctors said, were stress-related. He spent a week in the hospital. Then, he went back to his friend's apartment. He had nothing except time.

Peterson's ability to walk, talk, and use his hands had been severely damaged. So he decided to rehab himself. "I had a chair," he said. "I'd stand up every day." After a while, he began walking up and down the stairs of his friend's building, to train himself to walk again. He read to himself to teach himself how to speak again. After eight months of excruciating self-guided work, he was well enough to function. At that point, his friend asked him to leave.

Leave to where? Peterson did not have anywhere to go. So he went down to Bellevue Hospital on the east side and checked himself into a homeless shelter. That's where a recruiter for The Doe Fund found him.

The Doe Fund takes in homeless New Yorkers, gives them housing and job training, and eventually gets them jobs in the real world and places to live. Since 2009, the group has had a program dedicated exclusively to veterans, who are twice as likely as civilians to end up homeless, and who make up about a fifth of the total homeless population. The veterans live on their own floor, and get the standard Doe Fund program along with extra help for things like mental health issues and interacting with the VA. The program has served 800 veterans since it began. The group has plans to open a new housing facility in The Bronx to expand the program. The need far exceeds the space.

The goal is to get veterans stable and healthy enough to find jobs and become self-sufficient. Many, like Curtis Peterson, achieve that. Others are not able to. For veterans who can't work, due to physical or mental disabilities, The Doe Fund offers a "rapid rehousing" service, a live-in program that gives the homeless men a bed and constant access to mental health counselors and services, with the aim of getting them settled in permanent housing.

Philip Mackey, a short and dapper middle-aged man with salt-and-pepper hair and a neat goatee, recently entered the rapid rehousing program. Mackey grew up on the Lower East Side and entered the military in the mid-90s, became an aircraft repairman, and rose to sergeant in just two years. He was sent to Ft. Wainwright in Alaska, where temperatures routinely plunge into the negative double digits. There, Mackey said, he was the victim of a sexual assault, which his chain of command tried to "sweep under the rug." In the wake of the incident, he left the military, though the emotional damage stayed with him.

He moved back to New York City. He managed a shoe store for three years. He managed a Toys R Us. He tried working at the jewelry store Zales, but found that he was not made for it. "I was horrible at selling diamonds," he said. "I can't lie. They wanted us to sell people the dream." Instead, Mackey would point out to customers that they could get the same stones more cheaply elsewhere, or advise them to save the money for something more important, like a house.

Eventually, Mackey found success selling insurance, and moved to North Carolina with his wife. There, he fell into a terrible depression. For seven years, he says, he spent up to 18 hours a day in bed. He gained 60 pounds, and had panic attacks. "What happened in the military aggravated it," Mackey said. "It was a very dark period."

He and his wife finally split. He returned to New York, staying with family for a matter of weeks before that grew too imposing. He ended up sleeping in city parks. After he tired of that, he went to the VA hospital and, begrudgingly, agreed to be declared homeless in order to enter a shelter. "When you have PTSD and depression," he said wryly, "it's not your cup of tea to be around a lot of people."

Staffers at The Doe Fund are quick to point out that the issue of homeless veterans is not so simple that it can be explained as a bunch of men broken by war, suffering PTSD, and unable to function. About half of the veterans in The Doe Fund's program have serious mental health issues, including PTSD. The other half don't. Some of the men are combat veterans, but many are not. The classic image of the shellshocked warrior is just one of many iterations of the problem. Some men, like Curtis Peterson, are victims of health and economic issues far more than combat. Others, like Phillip Mackey, have been scarred by something other than bullets. What many homeless veterans seem to have in common is a lack of a strong family safety net to save them from the streets; an intense need for social services and health care that exceeds that of the civilian population; and a pride in their service which persists despite the evident paucity of society's gratitude for what they have done.

The U.S. government estimates that more than 60,000 veterans are homeless on any given day, and that more than a million are "at risk of homelessness." The outlook for the problem is equally grim: Doe Fund staffers say that the wave of homeless veterans from America's most recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq still has yet to hit. If history is any lesson, it will, with a vengeance.

Phillip Mackey—military man, shoe salesman, honest diamond merchant—is also a writer. When I met him last week, he recited one of his poems to me. It was about realizing your dreams. I told him he should go to one of the city's poetry open mics, and he gave me an indulgent smile, indicating with his look that he might not make it out on the town for that for quite a while. "Some days are good days," he said. "Then you can have long stretches where it's not so good."

[Image by Jim Cooke. Photo via Shahar Azran/The Doe Fund]

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