Anthony Suau for Al Jazeera America

Making a home for every homeless vet

With the largest population of homeless veterans, Los Angeles vies to meet White House goal: homes for all by 2015


LOS ANGELES — On a block of Sunset Boulevard near Normandie Avenue in Hollywood, Christopher “Cat” Gill is a fixture. His shopping cart is overflowing. Newspaper clippings about his latest obsession, the Super Bowl, are plastered on a street facade. He’s animated. He paces. He bursts into laughter. He bounces from one topic to the next.

One day last month he decided to shave. He grabbed a broken disposable razor from his cart and dry-shaved vigorously, looking at his reflection in a cigar shop window. He pulled back his long blond hair into a ponytail. The razor snapped in two. His haphazard grooming revealed a handsome face and winsome smile.

That’s Cat at his best, and maybe, for a brief moment, one imagined Navy Petty Officer Christopher Gill in uniform, on a submarine in the Atlantic Ocean in the 1970s.

Or was it the ’80s? He threw out both dates during a manic diatribe.

One thing is clear.

“I’ve been on and off on the streets since … after my severe pinched nerve,” he said.

Known on the streets of Hollywood as “Cat,” homeless Navy veteran Christopher Gill tries to shave with a broken razor he pulled from his shopping cart of belongings.
Anthony Suau for Al Jazeera America

Homeless advocates have been tracking him for more than a year. Workers from People Assisting the Homeless (PATH) check in with him and try to steer him off the streets.

He’s not ready yet.

There are thousands of Cats on the streets of American cities — an estimated 57,849 homeless U.S. veterans on a single night in January 2013, the most recent government estimate. The numbers have been declining, down 24 percent since 2010.

As more troops have returned from Iraq (the last left in December 2011) and Afghanistan, the Obama administration has set an ambitious goal: Get all homeless veterans off the streets by 2015.

This mandate from above has opened up federal funding and transformed the Veterans Affairs’ approach to the problem, leading to unprecedented cooperation with private groups and the adoption of the “housing first” philosophy embraced by many homeless advocates.

Rather than wait for the homeless to clean up — stop drinking and/or taking drugs, get mental health counseling, find a job — the thinking is to put a roof over their heads first and work on their issues afterward. This approach to homelessness shatters the premise that only those who clean up and conform deserve housing.

“The light went on,” said Reggie Holmes, PATH regional manager who heads outreach efforts in Hollywood. “It’s cheaper to house them. The homeless cost them (taxpayers) millions. They go to hospitals. They go to jail.”

In December, Phoenix announced with much fanfare that it was the first city to meet the White House goal. Salt Lake City quickly followed.

But in a city like Los Angeles, which has 30 times the number of homeless veterans than Phoenix had, the challenges are daunting.

Nowhere is the get-them-off-the-streets-first approach more intense than here, where the mild weather creates a more welcoming environment for the homeless.

The city has the highest number of homeless veterans in the U.S. — almost 6,000 on any given night (Phoenix had 200). More than a third have been homeless for at least a year, and more than two-thirds served in the U.S. armed forces after Vietnam. Fewer than 20 percent have seen combat.

Average age: 51. Fifty-two percent are black, 31 percent white, 13 percent Hispanic and 4 percent Asian, Native American and other. By far, the vast majority are men (94 percent).

Often, homeless veterans have mental health, medical or social issues. Forty-five percent have a substance abuse problem, and half have a serious psychiatric disorder, such as psychosis or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Twenty-seven percent have both.

The VA has partnered with counties and nonprofit groups to set up Veteran Courts to help divert veteran inmates from incarceration and into homeless and mental health treatment.

“We’re providing many, many exits out of homelessness,” said Michelle Wildy, chief of community care for the Greater Los Angeles VA Healthcare System. “The way we’ve been able to do it is by meeting veterans where they’re at. We engage them on the streets.”

Staffing in her division grew from 35 in 2009 to 400 today.

Los Angeles has been ground zero for many VA pilot programs targeting homeless veterans. “If it can be done in L.A., it can be done anywhere,” Wildy said.

Craig Joyce rounded up his ACT (assertive community treatment) team: a social worker, a nurse practitioner and a peer support specialist (a veteran who has been homeless and now helps others get off the streets). Sometimes a psychologist or licensed nurse comes along.

The team has a morning huddle every day and assigns team members to various clients. They may go alone or in pairs.

“We meet five clients in one day,” said Joyce, program manager for the VA’s Enhanced Housing First program. “They have all the resources they need from one group of people.”

Referrals come from multiple sources — from groups such as PATH and Housing Works (which addresses issues of AIDS and homelessness) to churches and business owners.

They reach out to clients on the streets and at shelters. They know where they sleep or panhandle. If and when they get them off the streets, they visit them in their apartments.

On a day late in January, the first stop was at Raymond McGinnis’ place in Van Nuys, a San Fernando Valley suburb of Los Angeles. A severe alcoholic, the Navy veteran had lived on the streets of Hollywood for 17 years. His life was sidetracked by a car accident that required hip replacement, he said.

“That’s it. I lost my place,” he said, sitting in a messy apartment.

Janel Perez, the nurse practitioner on the team, monitored his blood pressure. Slightly elevated, but the medication he was prescribed seemed to be working.

McGinnis plopped in a chair and talked reluctantly about his life: a sister in Utah, a son who blames him for the breakup of his family and hasn’t spoken to him in five years.

Friends? “Most of them are dead or in jail,” he said, his breath pungent from alcohol in the middle of the morning.

More than a year ago, McGinnis was living on the streets. The VA’s outreach got him temporary shelter and, eventually, an apartment.

“I’m enjoying it,” he said. “I have a shower. I have a toilet. I have a TV, a radio.”

He’s talking about going back to work.

It may not happen, but McGinnis is not on the street more than a year after getting a housing voucher.

“Before, having a ticket off the street was having AIDS,” Holmes said.

Now veterans hold the winning ticket called HUD-VASH, which stands for the Department of Housing and Urban Development's and Veterans Affairs' jointly run Supportive Housing program.

“That’s where the money is, and there’s less focus on civilians,” he said.

The program combines rental assistance for homeless veterans with case management and clinical services by the VA.

HUD has awarded funding for approximately 10,000 HUD-VASH vouchers almost every year since 2008. Every state has at least one site that administers the program.

“I have never seen this before, this degree of focus and attention (to homeless veterans),” said Megan Colvard, associate director of community engagement at PATH, which has more than doubled its staff to 160 in the past year, largely to handle the distribution of housing vouchers.

In 2011, HUD appropriated $50 million to serve about 7,000 families, and another $5.4 million was given to existing HUD-VASH sites. More than 58,000 vouchers have been awarded since 2008.

Last year, when PATH in Los Angeles won the entire $1 million contract to distribute 1,100 vouchers locally – something that caused some grumbling among other advocacy groups – word got out and homeless vets began coming to the area. The contract totals $6 million over five years for vouchers and case management, said Carlos Gonzalez, director of programs.

“We target chronically homeless veterans with some level of mental illness or substance abuse,” Gonzalez said. “We assign a case worker. We chase down the documentation they need. We make appointments at the DMV, the VA, Housing Authority, and we’re with them another year or two after they move in.”

About 1,000 have been doled out so far. This year, the contract is spread out to several agencies.

Only the chronically homeless — those on the streets for a year or more or individuals who have recurring episodes — are eligible. When the voucher is granted, recipients have 90 days to use it before it expires. That means 90 days to get these homeless veterans Social Security cards they may no longer have and discharge papers they’ve long lost. Another obstacle: the high cost of housing in Los Angeles.

“There’s a growing gap between housing costs and income,” Colvard said. “The total average incomes may be $500 to $700 a month and the average one-bedroom apartment is $1,000. You can do the math.”

To get someone such as Cat Gill, the walking definition of chronically homeless, to become a Raymond McGinnis, off the streets for more than a year, is a monumental task.

Placing them in temporary shelter is one thing. Once they’re there, the paperwork and bureaucratic maze begins.

“The biggest problem is, if they don’t have honorable discharge, they’re not eligible for health care,” said Savanah Walseth, outreach navigator for PATH in Hollywood. “We try other ways of housing them or try to change their status with the VA.”

Benjamin Samual Wahl at the PATH center in Hollywood. He and his wife, Brandi, have applied for housing vouchers for veterans, but in the meantime they sleep in the shelter.
Anthony Suau for Al Jazeera America

Benjamin Samual Wahl, 28, a Philadelphia native, served in the Navy in the Gulf. He left before his two-year service time was up because of a disagreement with a superior and was diagnosed with mental disorders.

Wahl became agitated when he recounted how he ended up on the streets. His parents kicked him out.

“My dad doesn’t talk to me,” he said. “I lost my grandmother. I lost my mind.”

He moved in with his wife’s mother in New York, and later to a shared apartment. But their roommates left without paying, and they were evicted. He and his wife, Brandi, 24, then lived in a U-haul and later headed west to get away from the cold. They slept in sleeping bags three blocks from the beach for six months, headed to Hollywood and camped behind the AT&T building at De Longpre and El Centro avenues.

An officer with the Hollywood Business Improvement District spotted them and alerted Holmes, the PATH outreach worker. They had to be persuaded to move into a temporary shelter.

“It has its pros and cons,” Wahl said. “Our biggest problem is the dog.”

That’s Zelda, a Chihuahua-Sheltie mix, now in a cage in a small kennel in PATH’s garage, next to meowing cats and other homeless pets. Ben and Brandi visit her daily.

Shelter life means Brandi sleeps in a room upstairs with other women. Ben is in a larger men’s dormitory.

“I don’t like living separated from my husband,” said Brandi, who talked openly of her mental problems. “I got more sleep on the streets.”

They see each other during the day and continue to panhandle at Sunset and Vine.

Case workers are trying to overturn Ben’s military record and are setting up meetings with a lawyer and homeless advocate. Brandi has a better chance of getting a housing voucher through the Department of Mental Health than Ben through the VA.

“It’s a dead end everywhere,” Ben said. “Dad was a Navy guy. I thought I was going to go in the military and I would never have to worry.”

Ben Wahl with Zelda, a 2-year-old Chihuahua-Sheltie mix, who gets to stay with Ben and his wife in the shelter.
Anthony Suau for Al Jazeera America

When David Hauser, 55, walked into his interview with PATH workers, he wore a brown sports jacket a bit too big for him and a green "Welcome to the Wildlife" cap. He sat nervously and answered all questions the way a student who aims to please his teacher would.

Enlisted? Yes, in the Navy from 1976 to 1978.

Honorable discharge? Yes.

Documentation? Yes.

Debt? None.

Health? Good.

Substance abuse? No street drugs.

Homeless Navy veteran David Hauser answering questions to see if he was eligible for a housing voucher.
Anthony Suau for Al Jazeera America

Hauser has been in temporary housing for three years. The Navy veteran, who served on the USS Constellation aircraft carrier, says he has three associate degrees in engineering and water treatment, and had jobs but was laid off, one when he took a leave to be with his mother before she died of cancer in 2010.

Assault charges filed by his father landed him in jail for a few months and later on the streets. He found refuge at the nonprofit U.S. Vets in Inglewood but was transferred to PATH when he hit the maximum two-year stay. He carries a stack of folders with job applications and resumes and searches for jobs online, using the banks of computers that PATH provides.

Being homeless is “unnerving, confusing,” said Hauser, who is single and childless. “There’s a sense of panic, uncertainty. As a responsible, conscientious member of the family, to be thrown in the gutter … Not until my father passes away can I go home. It’s a strange feeling to be estranged.”

He said he would prefer to find a job first and then an apartment that's close to it.

"Getting an apartment is a little bit like putting the cart before the horse if I don't have employment," he said.

But not under the housing-first approach.

Ivan Bennett is a spry 85-year-old with a sharp mind and tongue, athletic pants and a headband. An Army veteran who served in Korea from 1946 to 1948, he has been homeless for more than two decades. It’s not clear how he ended up on the streets. He talked about attending Arizona State University for three years on the GI Bill and even the Sorbonne in Paris.

“I never had the ability to have a steady job,” he said. “I tried to be a writer.”

His manuscript is titled “War Against Control,” about the power of China, Bennett said.

He married in Bangkok and said he has a 45-year-old son he hasn’t since the son was 5.

Perez checked him out.

“Besides being a bit hard of hearing, he really doesn’t have any major medical issues,” she said.

The VA’s ACT team spotted him in Beverly Gardens Park, across from the swanky Beverly Hills City Hall, and worked several months to get him off the streets.

On a Thursday in January, Bennett’s life changed. He stood in a one-bedroom apartment with wall-to-wall carpeting. It was empty, but furniture would arrive soon.

A few days later, the apartment was still empty, but Bennett had a few things in the refrigerator: eggs, bacon, butter, mustard, lettuce. A bottle of tequila was on the kitchen counter.

Case workers arranged to pick him up later that week to take him to the bank and pay $205 to the Department of Water and Power.

“A $205 deposit for that?’’ he asked, baffled.

When the furniture arrived, he was overwhelmed. When someone plugged in a lamp and the light came on, he clapped.

For veterans who have been without a home for years, the prospect of living alone in an apartment is terrifying. They miss their friends on the street. Their world is turned upside down. They feel lonely. Many just sit in front of the TV.

“One of the most horrible parts is the isolation,” said Spencer Downing, director of programs and operations at the Center at Blessed Sacrament in Hollywood, where the homeless come for coffee, mill about, show off their artwork, listen to music or just talk.

Michael Brady, 72, an Air Force veteran who was stationed in Morocco from 1960 to 1964, spent 23 years in motels and on the street, but Joyce’s team at the VA managed to get him into an apartment in Santa Monica more than a year ago.

“He was living on the floor,” Perez said. “He didn’t have a stick of furniture. It took us several months of working with him for him to accept the furniture.”

Formerly homeless veteran Michael Brady in his apartment.
Anthony Suau for Al Jazeera America

Brady sits on the sofa now, but the mattress on the bed has never been used. He prefers to sleep on the floor.

Brady has coronary artery disease and just completed treatment for prostate cancer, but he went to radiation every day on his own and takes his medication religiously, Perez said.

How’s life off the streets?

“It’s OK,” he said, on the couch with a blanket over his lap and his walker nearby. “I think the streets have wonderful things for people. Adversity? Why be afraid? I have faced adversity. I’ve had a couple of breakdowns and I discovered myself … What the streets taught me is self-reliance.”

It’s this kind of language that crystallizes the challenges that lie ahead.

“Now we‘ve got all these vets housed, but they’re not used to budgeting, paying the rent,” said Matt Rayburn, a regional manager at the main Los Angeles PATH center, who listens in on Hauser’s interview.

“The challenge is, how do we identify that this guy is going to have problems paying his rent before his landlord calls? How do we get them to make social connections?”

Caseworkers ask landlords to alert them before starting the eviction process and then try to intervene before the veterans are forced to return to a life on the streets.

“We have a moral obligation to help these people,” Rayburn said.

There is no question the Obama administration’s effort to house homeless veterans is groundbreaking, Holmes said.

“But just as much effort has to be put in to keep them housed,” he said. “We found out the hard way that it takes an average year and a half to get them in a house and three months to get evicted. And once evicted, it takes five years to get them back. We’re not even scratching the surface.”