Decades after waging war overseas, veterans fight for a stable home

Resource centers provide housing and group therapy for thousands of former members of the military

When he first showed up at a residential treatment facility in Sacramento, California, Roger Schultz’s life was a wreck. After serving as a cannoneer sergeant for five years in the early 1980s, three decades later, Schultz was living out of his truck, barely getting by.

In search of a comfortable bed and open to learning from the experiences of fellow veterans, he finally checked into a Veterans Resource Center (VRC) in July 2014.

“I loved when I served,” said Schultz. “I came from a very broken home [with] not much family support. So when I joined, it was all good from there. I learned how to be a Marine and nothing else. You always had somebody on your side.”

Although appreciative of the esprit de corps in the Marines, he quit the military to be back with his family, only to have his wife leave him the following year, he said. Then he spiraled out of control.

“I fell into an extreme flashback, went right back overseas into the field,” he said, explaining how post-traumatic stress led to problems with the law and run-ins with sheriffs as well as unsuccessful experiences with other programs.

Schultz found the opportunity to stay at the Sacramento VRC, where counselors would help sort out supplemental government income, health care needs and, most immediately, his housing situation.

Fellow Marine veteran Matt Jensen greeted Schultz upon his check-in. Jensen, who has been through homelessness and three suicide attempts, said, “I thought the country gave up on me, but this job saved me.” He added that 40 percent of VRC employees are veterans. “It [is] the perfect working place.” 

A trailer for documentary film “Shelter.”

Based in Santa Rosa, California, the nonprofit VRC was launched in 1980 by Peter Cameron to help returning members of the military find homes, jobs and healthy relationships. Funded mostly by federal grants, it has served over 13,000 veterans, with 13 branches in California, Nevada and Arizona.

In the United States, 22 million military veterans account for 7 percent of the population. But veterans make up 12 percent of the adult homeless population, according to the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans. Black and Hispanic veterans are three times as likely to be homeless as vets in general.

According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, 9 out of 10 homeless veterans are male. A majority are single and live in urban areas and suffer from mental illness, physical disability or substance abuse. About half served during the Vietnam era.

“There seems to be a large percentage of veterans that do come out a little broken, and for everybody, really, it’s a life-changing experience,” said Jason Henry, a Navy veteran and regional director at the VRC. “That’s what boot camp is all about. They take away your individualism, and they train all that stuff out of you so you follow orders.”

But, he continued, “there’s no out-training. They’re being trained to such a high degree to go over and fight ... then they’re out one day. How is someone supposed to flip that switch? It doesn’t happen.”

Folksinger David Morris, who performs melancholic music addressing veteran themes, offered a story of how he tried to save a colleague on the battlefield but was torn “to pieces” once he realized nothing could be done.

“In order to function in combat — a rational response would be to get the hell out of there,” he said. “But we cannot be rational, so we have to set aside the human response ... You numb yourself to it because if you don’t, you’ll start screaming one day and never stop.”

While Barack Obama’s administration has said reforms at the VA have reduced wait times for doctor appointments, critics say that change has not come fast enough under new Secretary Robert McDonald. Scandals over delays in delivering health care have plagued the department.

Every year, the VA provides health care for about 150,000 homeless veterans and other services to more than 100,000. But according to the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans, the most effective form of care is community-based transitional housing that allows veterans to live and tackle their problems alongside fellow vets.

Two veterans console each other during a group therapy session at the Sacramento Veterans Resource Center.

Despite the quiet victories emerging from group therapy at VRCs, countless veterans are unable to overcome their demons. The organization tries to keep in touch with everyone who goes through its program, but some graduates have been lost to suicide. 

Heather Stride, a Navy veteran now serving in the Air Force National Guard, is coping with drug addiction while living with her boyfriend and several others in a homeless encampment adjacent to a Northern California freeway. The two use a propane burner to cook food or stop at a nearby 7-Eleven to use the microwave. Although offered a bed at the Eureka VRC, her nonveteran partner is not allowed to take a bed meant only for veterans.

“Your whole day is encompassed with doing nothing but surviving,” she said. “Looking for jobs becomes much harder because you’re more focused on ‘Where am I going to get my next meal?’ or ‘How am I going to get to these free services?’”

Benefiting from VRC counseling services, Stride is taking some steps in the right direction, despite the constant struggle to get her life back on track. With unemployment payments, Stride purchased a rainproof tent to keep her belongings dry. She hopes recently received government housing vouchers will help with finding a better living situation and finally coming in from the cold.

“Welcome to homelessness” said her boyfriend, David Lynall. “The woods is where we sleep. This is our home.”

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