Austin Weekly News: From serving their country to sleeping on its streets

Lower Wacker Drive has served as a makeshift home for many of Chicago’s homeless — just ask Jose Vasquez.

For four years, he braved the bitter winter cold and blazing summer heat on Lower Wacker.

It was actually better than many of the city’s shelters, Vasquez said. In the summer, he recalled, the concrete and shade helped beat the heat. Winters were painfully cold, but less dangerous – “Nobody’s roaming around at night,” he says, ” not when it’s 20 below, but in the summer they could hit you in the head, rob your stuff.”

But these days, Vasquez, 68, lives in subsidized housing on South Wabash Avenue and works as an advocate with the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless. Vasquez has seen tough times before. He served his country fighting in Vietnam but ended up becoming one of the thousands of American veterans who are homeless.According to the Homeless Research Institute, of the estimated 23 million veterans in the United States, anywhere from 529,000 to 840,000 will be homeless at some point during a year. Each night, approximately 300,000 are living on the streets or in shelters across the country, according to the institute. And as temperatures continue to drop below freezing, the number seeking shelter will only increase.

Many of those homeless veterans are suffering from physical or psychological damage linked to their service.

“Veterans are twice as likely as any other American to become homeless,” said Joseph Troiani, a former Navy commander and currently coordinator of the military clinical psychology track at the Adler School of Professional Psychology.

Some of the contributing factors to homelessness, Troiani adds, are “behavioral health problems.”

“And a big contributor to behavioral health problems are what we call combat-related stress, combat-related mental health issue or what’s commonly referred to as post-traumatic stress disorder,” he said.

According to Vasquez, it affects all soldiers.

“Over in Vietnam,” he said in a detached voice, “I saw a lot of stuff.”

Vazquez returned home to Texas in 1969, and came to Chicago in 1971. But the horrors of that war, and losing his friends, made coming home a rough adjustment.

“Most of the time I couldn’t sleep good and I had flashbacks,” said. “I’d be sleeping and it’ll come upon you and then I wake up – ‘Oh, I’m not there.’”

To deal with these flashbacks and the stigma of being a veteran of Vietnam — a war many Americans opposed — Vasquez and many of his fellow veterans turned to alcohol or drugs.

“When I first came home I used to drink a lot,” Vasquez said. “My breakfast was strong drink — whiskey, brandy, all that.”

After watching a friend die of cirrhosis — a loss of liver function due to alcoholism —Vasquez went sober, and he’s now been clean for 40 years.

Staying sober

For other veterans, staying sober isn’t as easy.

“Before I went to the service, I picked up a drug habit,” said Drew Hall, an air wireman and clerk typist who joined the Army in 1973. “Once I got in the service, I kind of embellished on that a little more.”

Hall currently resides at Pacific Garden Mission on South Canal Street. Now, with a consistent roof over his head, he’s concentrating on getting clean.

“I’m in the drug program [at Jesse Brown VA clinic], outpatient,” Hall said. “It’s helpful because I’m around a lot of people just like me. I don’t have to worry about being tempted with drugs because all of us are trying to stay off drugs.

“It puts me around people who are trying to better themselves and that’s what I want,” he added. “You can’t be in recovery, and be around people who [are] not recovering and expect help. I love it. I go there three times a week.”

Jerrold Hermon, a veteran of the Navy, also stays at Pacific Garden. He’s using their resources, and those of the VA, to get his GED and get back on his feet. When he finishes, he said, he hopes to enroll in the health care assistant program at Malcolm X College.

“In my particular case,” Hermon said, “there is one other impediment to the deal — a slight case of drug abuse, which I’m getting over. The last time I had something was March 8.”

Of the many homeless veterans he’s met from the Vietnam era, Hermon said that many “have a substance abuse problem involved.”

For such veterans, options for treatment of mental illness or substance abuse are often limited. They are often cut off from their families, and the support system families can provide. Sometimes help is far away and without phones, or bus fare, or other basic tools for moving around the veterans just can’t get to it. And sometimes their pride prevents them from seeking help.

“There’s a lot of veterans on the street and in shelters because their families don’t want them, or they don’t want to go to their families, because they’ve got issues — maybe they’ve got a drinking problem now or post-traumatic stress disorder,” Vasquez said.

When groups like Thresholds, a Chicago-based group that provides healthcare to people in Illinois with mental illness, visit the Pacific Gardens Mission, struggling veterans often won’t come forward. “They would never raise their hand because they didn’t want nobody to know,’ Vasquez said. “And they didn’t get help. They’re still there.”

Some veterans, like Hall and Hermon, rely on the Jesse Brown VA clinic, located in the Medical District on the Near West Side.

Unfortunately, with the great number of veterans returning from deployment and the high population of older veterans that require treatment, Jesse Brown, and the VA system as a whole, are struggling to keep up.

“They’re seeing a surge of problems and, at best, they’re in a reactive mode” said Troiani of the Adler School of Professional Psychology, noting that the record-high suicide rate in the military is behind the urgency.

The problem is being compounded by a severe understaffing of mental health specialists, Troiani said. In response, the VA system two months ago unveiled plans to hire 1,600 nurses, psychiatrists, psychologists and social workers to increase its staff of behavioral health professionals.

In addition to this nation-wide effort, Jesse Brown recently launched its Homeless Patient Aligned Care Team primary and urgent care clinic. H-PACT is “a walk-in clinic where homeless veterans can see a doctor or nurse practitioner, without an appointment, to get the medical care they need,” said Luz Hein, the chief of social work service at Jesse Brown.

Jesse Brown serves approximately 3,000 homeless vets, said Candice Bodie, director of the center’s homeless veteran program.

But first they have to get there. “People who are homeless don’t always have the luxury of scheduling an appointment,” she said. The open-access design of the clinic allows veterans to get service when it’s convenient for them.

Access to veterans’ services is one of the biggest problems faced by the homeless, Vasquez said. “How [is] he going to get to these places if he don’t have a bus card?”

And there’s often a sad irony involved adds Troiani: “I get a big kick out of these homeless websites. Good, good, so somebody living in a cardboard box will just plug into Wi-Fi and surf the Internet and find resources?”

Vasquez and Troiani agree that to increase awareness of homeless services for veterans, better community outreach is needed.

“There are programs, but to me they don’t announce themselves, they don’t pass out fliers,” Vasquez said. “Go to libraries and leave your fliers there. And to catch the homeless people down on Wacker, go at night.”