By Louis Medina, Homelessness Project Manager
It is one thing to discuss homelessness in abstract, general terms; it is quite another to talk about the parts—the individuals—who make up the "homelessness" whole and to show, up close, the faces of homelessness.
The Kern County Homeless Collaborative (KCHC) always strives to protect the dignity and confidentiality of its clients. Sometimes—also for dignity's sake—we purposely set out to highlight the stories and photos of the homeless people we meet and care for.
We do this for two reasons: 1) To create community awareness about homelessness and the challenges facing the homeless; and 2) To erase some of the social stigma that exists against homeless people.
We also do this with the utmost consideration for the homeless—or formerly homeless—people whose stories we share after obtaining their permission.
Below are some quick glimpses into the lives of four faces in the crowd at yesterday's (10/11/2012) Kern County Veterans Stand Down, which drew about 350 attendees. These individuals were kind and patient enough to share their time and life experiences with me. Please read their stories with respect and a desire to learn what they, as homeless or formerly homeless members of our community, have to teach us.
A Fateful Encounter
Alberto's face has the serious, melancholy, almost religious look of an El Greco painting. He is 30, and an Iraq War veteran. He served in the U.S. Military from 2001 to 2008 and was deployed to Iraq twice. He came back in 2005, he said, and spent his last three years of service at Camp Pendleton Marine Force Base in San Diego.
His homeless crisis began in December of 2011, after he separated from his wife and was unable to find work, he said.
Some of the problems Alberto is facing are common among the homeless.
He has a history of drug use, including methamphetamine, and once spent a year in a sober living home.
He has no health insurance.
He gets food stamps, but does not know where he will be from one day to the next.
"I just bounce from place to place, really," he said, as he ate a free, hearty breakfast of pancakes, eggs and orange juice at the Stand Down. "Sometimes I stay with friends," he continued. "They let me sleep in their garage. Unfortunately, sometimes I end up in the park or in jail." In fact, he had just been released two days before, he said, after having been arrested for burglary when he was found squatting in a home. He had also been charged with possession of drug paraphernalia, which he claims was in the home but did not belong to him.
What brought him to the Stand Down was the opportunity to see a judge at Veterans Court, in an effort to get his driver's license back.
Alberto lives in Wasco, where the KCHC's Homeless Consumers & Service Provider's Committee began doing quarterly outreaches in partnership with Griffith Avenue Baptist Church. Did he know about the outreaches?! I asked. Yes, he said. He had even read about them in the Wasco Tribune and knew where the church is located. I told him there was another one coming up really soon, on the 22nd of the month at 9 a.m. Would he be able to remember the date? Yes, he said, because it happened to be just two days before his birthday.
Without realizing it, Alberto had given me hope.
I told him not to go away while I went to get some information that might be useful to him: the KCHC's Homeless Resources Sheet with lots of useful phone numbers, a flyer about our upcoming Oildale Outreach at Riverview Assembly of God Church beginning at noon on October 31, as he often makes it down to Bakersfield from Wasco, and United Way FamilyWize cards for discounts on prescription meds for the uninsured.
Hopefully, we'll be able to see him at the Wasco Outreach and wish him an early Happy Birthday.
Cookie and Nathan: Homeless Newlyweds
The kiss was spontaneous. I had just asked if I could take their picture, but the homeless couple obliged me with a tender public display of affection.
Cookie's real name is Rozella. She is 53. True to her nickname, she was wearing a Sesame Street's Cookie Monster T-Shirt.
She is the widow of a veteran named Roy Eugene Lynch, who was 52 when he died from cancer of the liver on July 29, 2010, she said. The memory of her deceased husband is the reason she was at the Stand Down.
"My husband was my best friend, so it's like a relief to come here," she said. She has been homeless since Roy passed away.
Nathan, 51, is her new husband. He is not a veteran.
They were legally married this year on Valentine's Day, they told me. They currently live in a tent near the river and use a baby stroller to push their belongings around when they are out and about.
Between them, they share a whole slew of debilitating medical conditions.
Cookie had stomach surgery and a hysterectomy at the end of 2010, Nathan shared. And in 2011 she was hospitalized with pancreatitis.
They both have several missing and decaying teeth.
Nathan has Hepatitis C. He is not an alcoholic, he said, but self-medicates every morning with a tall bottle of beer ("32 ounces" Cookie chimed in) for pain in his legs.
He has no medical benefits. Cookie at least is enrolled in the healthcare plan for medically indigent adults at Kern Medical Center, she said.
They both ate their free breakfasts heartily and Nathan went back for seconds. How was the food? "Delicious!" he said readily.
Nathan was an iron worker in Nashville, Tenn., and in North Dakota at one time, he said. Currently, he "cans" (homeless slang for recycling cans and bottles) and does odd jobs.
His biggest need is for a home. "But that's hard to do when you don't have income," he said. "I miss paying my bills, having money and everything."
He said it's right for there to be a Stand Down. "I have several friends that are vets and I believe that they need help. I believe that because of the pain and stresses they suffer they have something coming to them."
As I did for Alberto, I gave Cookie and Nathan FamilyWize cards, Homeless Resource Sheets, and copies of the Oildale Outreach flyer. They are familiar with Riverview Assembly of God Church already, they both said. They go there for a hot lunch every Wednesday.
Hopefully, our Homeless Consumers & Service Providers Committee will see them on outreach day, October 31st.
You Go, Darold!
Darold Christian loves the Stand Down. "I look forward to it every year," he said.
He has always enjoyed the relaxing atmosphere it affords veterans. (In military terms, to "stand down" actually means to rest in a base camp after a gruelling battle or march.)
But there was a time several years ago when Darold was facing challenges similar to those that Alberto, Cookie and Nathan are facing—maybe worse. In fact, this 64-year-old U.S. Army vet, who became jobless and homeless in his fifties as a result of drug use, once had every intention of taking his life by swallowing a jar of pills.
But then his cell phone rang.
It was a friend whose mother worked in mental health services. She helped Darold get into Mary K. Shell Mental Health Services Center until his suicidal crisis was under control.
Several members of the Kern County Homeless Collaborative have intervened in Darold's life over the years to help him remain stably housed and engaged in self-care, including the Kern County Department of Mental Health's Kern Lifeline Program, California Veterans Assistance Foundation, which was the 2011 and 2012 organizer of the Kern County Veterans Stand Down, and the affordable housing programs for mentally ill homeless persons run by the Housing Authority of the County of Kern and Golden Empire Affordable Housing.
Since November of 2011, Darold has been living in Haven Cottages, which is managed by Golden Empire Affordable Housing. In January of this year, he began giving back to the Homeless Collaborative by serving on our Steering Committee as an elected Homeless Consumer Representative Member at Large. (In the photo above, he appears with CVAF Executive Director Heather Kimmel, who sometimes joins him at Homeless Collaborative meetings.)
Darold was stationed in the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea from 1967 to 1968, he said. But he only recently found out that the very region where he served had been sprayed with Agent Orange, a dangerous defoliant used in warfare by the U.S. Military primarily in Vietnam in the 1960s.
The U.S. Army's use of this poisonous substance in Korea was a well-kept secret, according to Darold.
"I would never have found out about it," he said, if it had not been for a recommendation from the Social Security Office for Darold to visit the Veterans Administration to find out if there were additional benefits he could access.
When answering questions for a VA representative about where he had served and when, the Demilitarized Zone (or DMZ) came up on a list of places that had been sprayed—right at the time Darold was stationed there with his unit.
"All my health problems are related to Agent Orange," Darold said, including type 2 diabetes, heart disease and depression.
But Darold, who has learned healthy coping tools thanks to the care he has received over the years, is proactively researching the healthcare options that are open to him. He is engaged in his own advocacy and healthcare, and is a living example of success for other homeless veterans.
You go, Darold!
Homeless Veteran: You Are Not Forgotten
There is a poster that is displayed at Stand Down to commemorate armed services personnel who became prisoners of war or went missing in action. It is a somber poster dominated by the black silhouette of an anonymous soldier looking downcast, lonely and trapped behind barbed wire and underneath the controlling gaze of the enemy in a watchtower.
Homeless veterans may identify with the soldier in the poster.
They may have become prisoners of the effects of post traumatic stress, brain trauma, paranoia, anxiety or other disorders or injuries—both mental and physical—that keep them in a perpetual state of internal conflict.
They may be missing in action in the foggy stupor of alcohol or drugs taken to deaden the pain of emotional or physical wounds that refuse to heal.
How is the road to peace and social reintegration possible for homeless vets when the land mines, barbed wire and enemy watchtowers cannot be sidestepped or outrun because they are carried around inside?
Hopeless, one might think. As hopeless as the soldier silhouetted in the poster.
But if one looks closer, the poster itself provides a ray of hope. Because underneath the silhouette is a simple caption: "You are not forgotten."
And it's true.
At least as far as the Kern County Homeless Collaborative is concerned, homeless veterans are not forgotten.
From emergency food and shelter to temporary housing to permanent supportive housing to intensive case management and aftercare, the Homeless Collaborative's partner agencies provide a continuum of care designed to meet the needs of homeless veterans and non-veterans alike.
If you are a homeless veteran, or know a homeless veteran, the Homeless Collaborative is here to help. Contact our partner agency that specializes in services to homeless vets, California Veterans Assistance Foundation by clicking here, or by calling (661) 399-2490. You may also contact the KCHC's Homelessness Project Manager at (661) 834-2734.
Please consider the changed life of Darold Christian who accepted help, continued seeking help, progressed to learning how to help himself again, and began looking up.
Look up, therefore, homeless vet: You are not forgotten.