Where homeless vets are welcomed home

For one July weekend, struggling veterans are given a place to call home – it's called Stand Down

SAN DIEGO — In military lingo, a “stand down” is a reprieve from battle, a time to rest and relax. But over one July weekend in San Diego, Stand Down is the name of a makeshift camp where homeless and near-homeless veterans can access basic necessities — clothes, a pair of glasses, medical attention — and enjoy comforts like a haircut or a massage. People who have attended say that real magic happens here.

The first Stand Down, organized by the Veterans Village of San Diego (VVSD), took place in 1988 to serve Vietnam veterans and now welcomes three generations of homeless veterans. Since 2009, the number of homeless veterans has decreased from 75,609 to 62,619, but government reports and experts warn that this is merely a lull before the generation of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans join their elders from the Vietnam War on the nation’s sidewalks, shelters and highways.

Day One

Before daybreak on Friday, they begin to stir, sluggish from a chilly night spent on the concrete. A meth dealer and his girlfriend emerge from their tent. A newlywed couple, married the day before, rise from their sidewalk nuptial bed. There are others, sleeping on chairs, inside cars, on cardboard flats. A long, lean man unwraps himself from a blanket. He goes by the name Monroe, and he watches everyone around him, taking note of names and details, as the homeless learn to do.

More arrive from across the county on foot, in cars and on the city bus that pulls to a stop at the bottom of the hill near downtown.

It’s nearing 6 a.m. Soon the metal gates will swing open, and the men and women on the line will go from the anonymous homeless to honored veterans of the U.S. armed forces. Inside, on a converted high school sports field, they will return to the world of cots and tents and chow lines they once knew. 

By Sunday, most of them will be back on the streets, but some will have taken the first steps towards finding a home. How they arrive at taking that very first step says much about the vexing nature of veteran homelessness. It says even more about the universal human needs that, for many, lie behind their homelessness.

Homeless veterans await the opening of the gates.
Anthony Suau for Al Jazeera America

They stand together, having shared an experience known to few Americans. The U.S. has the largest military apparatus of any country in the world, but less than 1 percent of population is active-duty military, and just 7 percent are veterans.

Chastity Harris has been married for one day and living on the streets for 18 months. She smooths her hair with one hand. From the other hangs a plastic bag loaded with dog food and dog toys. Her husband, Billy Harris, stands next to her holding the leash to their puppy, Modall. Her two children are staying with friends this weekend.

Billy is the military spouse; Chastity, 40, is a former Marine and an alcoholic. Stationed at Camp Pendelton, she never deployed anywhere and her enlistment was “abruptly cut short,” she says, because of conflicts with other personnel. “Problems with male personnel,” she adds. After the abuse came the depression, she says, then the drinking. 

This was in 1993, before military sexual abuse regularly made headlines. Studies show that half of homeless female veterans have experienced military sexual abuse and that they suffer from slightly higher rates of anxiety and post-traumatic stress than homeless male veterans do.

A voice rings out from outside the metal gate, “Are ... you ... ready?!”

Someone shouts back from inside, “Bring ’em on!”

The gate cracks open. Some 900 trickle in, five at a time. The chaos and danger of the streets drifts away, replaced by structure, order and the cheerful greeting of “Good morning! Welcome home!”

“I need a wheelchair, stat!” someone hollers. A baby-faced soldier thrusts a wheelchair forward. A man wrapped in a huge maroon towel staggers in and collapses on a milk crate. “Can we get medical?!” Someone shouts. Six sailors in blue uniforms walk briskly across the field and deliver a diagnosis: diabetic, low blood sugar.

Before they enter the camp, breakfast bags are handed out, and each person’s military service is verified. Tyler Tomson wears a white muscle shirt and very long shorts and carries a single paper containing the basic facts of his tour of duty: U.S. Army enlisted. Afghanistan. Age 25.

In Afghanistan, where he served for over a year, Tyler belonged to a brigade of bushwhackers who cleared the road of improvised explosive devices, or IEDs. “It was pretty much you’d get hit or you’d get lucky.” Twice he wasn’t lucky, and he checks the box next to TBI (traumatic brain injury).

Before each mission Tyler, the team leader, would open his Bible and read Psalm 21, “The King’s Victory,” to his men.

“At the time of your coming you will make them a fiery furnace. Then the Lord in his anger will consume them, devour them with fire.”

He had its words tattooed down his thick forearm, he says, to remember the mix of excitement and anxiety. The ritual and the words “helped ease the nerves,” he says.

He returned from Afghanistan last year and was stationed at Fort Hood in Killeen, Texas. What followed was a charted path toward homelessness. Struggling vets once stayed afloat for five or more years after completing their service before becoming homeless. But for Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, it’s three years, according to a government study.

One morning in February 2012, Tyler and another soldier walked into a convenience store in Killeen, threatened the clerk and robbed the cash register. Police found a Gucci bag in the red Mustang getaway car stuffed with cocaine, marijuana and hit of Ecstasy. Tyler told investigators that he was AWOL. Police noted a particular detail in the incident report: Tyler referred to his accomplice as his “battle buddy” and told him minutes before they entered the store that he was “with him,” just like back in Afghanistan. Tyler was convicted on charges of aggravated robbery and spent much of 2012 in prison.

When he got out, he entered rehab at VVSD. Two months into the program, Tyler secured a job doing electrical work, the trade he had picked up from his father, and temporary housing. “I thought I could take care of everything else on my own,” he says. “I didn’t need a curfew, a bedtime.” He would come to learn what the older vets here explain: A real home is more than a job and place to live, sometimes even more than sobriety. It comes from within. Nine days before Stand Down, San Diego cops busted Tyler and his girlfriend for dealing meth. If he can get back into a long-term program at Veterans Village, it will satisfy probation requirements and may help his case for the recent drug bust. “All I’m going to do is get into more trouble, and I didn’t want my more of that,” he says. 

Breakfast amid the tents.
Anthony Suau for Al Jazeera America

Calls for showers and free clothes ring out from an Army-issued loudspeaker. Army-issued tents that house Army-issued cots are positioned in horseshoe shape across the dirt field. A stage occupies the center. The voice on the loudspeaker summons the vets by tent name — Alpha, Zulu, Tango, after the letters in the military alphabet. Tent leaders are assigned to tents to offer counsel and support. Many are current or former homeless vets; a few are graduate students studying psychology and social work.

Tyler ignores the calls and plants himself at the VVSD table and begins filling out the thick application form for a shot at one year of concentrated life-skills building, therapy and job training. Veterans who secure a job after that first year are invited to stay for an additional year.

Monroe Rostick observes the comings and goings of the table from behind reflecting sunglasses. He was among the first in line outside the gate and the first to sign up for the VVSD program, which he participated in once before. Monroe is 52 years old and served in the Navy from 1984 to 1988. The last time he hit Stand Down was in 2001. In the decade that followed, he married and found stability. And then he lost it all.

“I didn’t wake up and say, I want to be an alcoholic. I didn’t wake up and say, I want to be a drug addict,” he says. “Things happen.” Those things landed him in coffee shops and bus stops and VVSD’s winter tent for homeless veterans.

He says he needed six months of preparation to be able to ask for help. “You gotta be able to be humble enough to get recovery,” he says. “Everything that is closed off to me right now is going to open up.” He smiles and launches into a detailed breakdown of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, a pyramid of building blocks for personal growth. Housing and food occupy the bottom rungs, with problem-solving, morality and confidence among signs of a fully developed person. Indeed, many of the veterans here are well versed in psychological terminology and the structure of needs. “I know how it works,” he says. “I just have to be it.”

After nearly an hour, Tyler finishes up the paperwork and saunters away from the tent. Job training isn’t his biggest concern or even housing. This time around, he plans to give therapy a shot.

“Last time, I held s--- back,” Tyler says. “My conscious is not really there.” But Tyler still seems to be holding things back. His application doesn’t mention the collapse of his parents’ well-established electrical business during the recession or anything about his father or his mother, who filed for bankruptcy afterTyler’s father, a Vietnam veteran, killed himself just before Tyler deployed for Afghanistan

If given a chance, both Monroe and Tyler will take part in a recovery program that is a boot camp for coping with the dual assault of combat scars and the struggles of life and, for some, the absence of purpose the military once provided.

Volunteers cut hair.
Anthony Suau for Al Jazeera America

The action begins to pick up around the camp. Stylists shear off a year’s worth of shaggy hair. Acupuncturists plunge needles into foreheads, arms and legs. Every massage table is occupied by noon.

Nearby, Carlos, 31, waits with his girlfriend for a state ID card. He talks fast, his eyes shooting stars. He left the Marines in 2004 and has been selling meth ever since. His homelessness is by design, he says, a means of avoiding the police, who can show up any minute and bang down the door. His probation and their badge is all the right they need to barge in.

We walk back to the Mike tent, where most of the vets from the Afghanistan and Iraq military campaigns are staying. Carlos explains that he signed up for transitional housing designed for people like him, with dual diagnoses — he twirls his finger in the air — “crazy and drug addict,” he says. A multiyear government study found that 80 to 90 percent of homeless vets suffer from mental illness and 50 to 60 percent of them suffer from drug and alcohol abuse.

A few cots away, Sean, 29, says he enlisted in the Navy in 2004 to escape his drug-addicted mother. Now he’s a dealer. You can often find him in a fast-food parking lot nearby.

The counselors at the camp are especially worried about the new crop of homeless vets because theirs is a generation raised on abandonment and abuse. “It’s kids who want to do something with their lives,” says Recheal Stewart-Brown, a clinical counselor. “They go into the military, and they already have trauma, and they get traumatized again either by military sexual abuse or combat field.

Tyler wanders in from the midday heat and slides onto his cot for a rest. Through an open flap of the tent, Chastity and Billy can be seen in the tent next door, sitting across from a uniformed soldier. She’s wiping away tears. 

Day Two

“We got married!” yells Chastity at the entrance of the camp. She’s wearing a long black summer dress and gold Chinese slippers. Although they married the day before Stand Down, this ceremony included a chaplain, with vows, she says, in front of an ancient tree stump behind the tents. They pull up photographs on their cell phone. “I cried the whole time,” says Chastity. “We wanted to do vows before God and country.” Billy shouts, “I spent my honeymoon at Stand Down!”

Before the ceremony, they sat with the chaplain for prewedding counseling. “He wanted to make sure that we are not of the world, that our love is spiritually based.” She pauses and looks deeply. “Love is what homeless people need.”

She finishes applying her makeup. Her appointments with veterans’ outreach groups begin in a few hours. They are on a “positive plan” she says. Already, three mornings have passed without reaching for a bottle, not clutching her “sippy cup,” a throwaway coffee cup or soda bottle filled with booze. “And I just sip all day long, all day, drink, drink, drink. That’s crazy, huh?”

She turns to her husband, “Do you notice I don’t have a sip cup?”

Billy fiddles with his cellphone and says without looking up, “You don’t know how proud of you I am.”

She adds proudly, “I didn’t have a sippy cup yesterday.”

Billy looks up at his bride. “I find myself falling in love with you all over again.” She smiles back. A calm comes over her. “It’s like we have jokes, real jokes, and they’re, like, funny.”

Now if they can just get the help they need — a house, counseling. Billy runs the numbers: He says they need $5,000 to $6,000 a month in assistance. But Chastity isn’t listening. She’s concentrating on life’s possibilities now that she has someone by her side. “It’s weird being with someone who actually cares. He cares about me. Why not me care about me?”

It’s 8 a.m., and her day at the tables begins.

Tyler strolls the grounds with his girlfriend and buddies from recovery. His friend Andrew Peeters, 26, is eager to talk. With his tan flip-flops, muscle shirt, sunglasses and easygoing attitude, the former sailor could be mistaken for a surfer.

Peeters joined the Navy in 2005 to see the world, get his priorities straight and earn money for college through the G.I. Bill. He was soon on a flight deck where F-18 jets launched toward Afghanistan to drop bombs on a place he never saw. Every port was a party, and every party had booze.

“I was drinking pretty much as soon as I entered the Navy,” he says. He got in trouble for drinking while driving, and his military service ended with an “other than honorable” discharge in January 2010. No benefits, no G.I. Bill, no glory.

“I didn’t have anywhere to go. I had my truck with all of my belongings in the back. It was like, Wow, where do I go from here?” he says. He returned to California and roomed with his brother, also a vet, who received an honorable discharge.

“It was, like, all that stuff I had done in the military, and it was almost nonexistent,” he says. “I haven’t nothing to show for it except arrests and rehab stints.” Unlike many of his tentmates, he has a family, and they have tried to help, he says. But two weeks after he would get out of rehab, he would start drinking again, sleeping in a tent or a “hooker motel.”  

As of today he has been dry for a little over a week. If he’s accepted into the VVSD recovery program, it will be his fourth go at sobriety. He still has six months until the three-year mark, when the government says younger veterans become homeless.

Attendees catch up on sleep.
Anthony Suau for Al Jazeera America

By noon, the camp takes on a lazy feel. People nap. Others smoke or wander around. It’s hard to detect the major transformations that some swear takes place. A few tents away, Coday Campbell, 51, sets things straight. Like Andrew, Coday returned from the Navy an alcoholic, but his war was Vietnam.

Coday first attended Stand Down five years ago, and he had just one goal — scoring a bus pass. He wanted for little else: He lived among the bamboo, caught fish and rabbit to eat, repaired junk and sold it. “Being a country boy, I had my way of doing stuff,” he says. Originally from Oklahoma, Coday took to the wilds of San Diego after his sister, who cared for his son while he was in the Navy, turned him away, saying a drunk father was no good for a little boy.

But even after he stopped drinking, he continued to hide out. “I had to deal with the alcoholism in my mind,” he says with a light knock to the temple with his knuckle.

At Stand Down, he found not just a bus pass but a way out of isolation and met others who had lived the life he has known — the uniform, combat, sudden blackouts. Coday points to one of the counselors nearby. “That lady right there, she loved me. She loved me before I could learn to love myself.” Five years ago Coday abandoned his bamboo shelter and found a way out of isolation.

It’s chow time. The younger vets walk by. Some have followed his path, hiding away in San Diego’s canyons and wilds, isolated. Now Coday returns to Stand Down each year as a tent leader, after finding the road others are still searching for.

They can’t begin to recover until they hit pain, he says. “They’re getting way into their soul and digging stuff out,” he says, rising from his camping chair. “The only thing that will blow that hole open is joy and happiness. The deeper that hole gets dug, the more joy and happiness it can hold.”

Day Three

Getting fitted for glasses.
Anthony Suau for Al Jazeera America

Military-issued eyewear for the homeless apparently comes in one frame: round John Lennon glasses. Optometry, like dentistry, is in high demand at Stand Down, and from the looks of things, a sizable portion of homeless suffer from vision problems.

The big news is expected by early afternoon. Anyone who sat through the lengthy application form for the VVSD program will learn if their days of drifting have come to an end. In previous years, the process was competitive, but this year the number of applications fell precipitously. No one can explain why. There are theories — new housing programs for veterans, an economy on the mend.

Each vet was required to check in at various times over the weekend as a way to prove their commitment. In the late morning, Andrew enters the VVSD tent, slides into a chair and faces two counselors. The counselors look up his name, take him by the hand and with a firm shake say, “Welcome home.” Monroe takes his turn shortly after that.

An announcement goes out over the loudspeaker: All those accepted into the program must meet at the round table near the Veterans Village tent. They sit in a circle. Monroe is all smiles. Andrew wears a sheepish expression.

Tyler and his girlfriend wander around the camp for part of the afternoon. She heads over to the program tent with the other guys, but he continues to walk around.

The graduation parade begins. Andrew joins the tentmates, who march toward the stage. Monroe carries the flag for the Delta tent, taking big strides across the field. They march to bagpipe music, singing:

“We are every G.I. Joe. Bring it on down. One, two, three, four. One, two, Three, four!”

Headed back to the streets.
Anthony Suau for Al Jazeera America

They file by a moving van stationed next to the stage, where each one receives a camouflage tan backpack filled with care packages of items they’ll need when they’re back on the streets.

While some say goodbye and smile for photos, others begin to leave. Two white vans have pulled into the camp, and Monroe, Andrew and the others load up their bags and set off for the VVSD rehab center — home, for now. Chastity and Bill leave with a Stand Down friend who has offered them a ride. Some weeks later, Chastity reports that she received a housing voucher from a veterans’ group while she waits for a long-term program. Maybe it was a few days of sobriety, maybe it was a day of chatting with counselors, but something, she says, “opened my eyes.”

Carlos and his girlfriend say they’ve lined up a place to stay with friends. It’s a temporary solution. She wants him to give up dealing meth, but without it and the good money it brings, how will a physically and mentally damaged young man, not yet 30, earn a living?

Tyler wasn’t accepted into the program, his mother said later. After bouncing around on the streets for six weeks, he turned up at a VA emergency room. He was suicidal and asking for help.

Alex Newman contributed to this report.

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