Homeless veterans a year later

by @hayaelna March 18, 2015 5:00AM ET

Some of the six vets Al Jazeera America met last year are no longer homeless, but one has died, and two have disappeared

The bed in the apartment of formerly homeless veteran Michael Brady. He has never slept in it.
Anthony Suau for Al Jazeera America

LOS ANGELES — Christopher “Cat” Gill, a former Navy petty officer who was homeless for decades, is no longer a fixture on Sunset Boulevard.

It’s not because Gill, a schizophrenic, has finally been housed — something social workers from the Hollywood office of People Assisting the Homeless (PATH) had been trying to get him to do for years.

He has just disappeared.

“Maybe he’s in jail,” said Reggie Holmes, a PATH regional manager.

Gill was one of a half-dozen homeless veterans Al Jazeera America featured a year ago to document the challenges of meeting the White House’s goal of housing every veteran by the end of 2015.

At that time, some still lived on the streets, some were in shelters, and others had been placed in housing with the help of HUD-VASH — the Department of Housing and Urban Development and Department of Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing program, which has doled out 10,000 housing vouchers a year since 2008.

The deadline to end veteran homelessness in the U.S. is looming, and nowhere is the pressure felt more than in Los Angeles, the city with the most homeless veterans, at more than 3,700 on any given night.

“I’m very confident that we’re going to reach the functional zero goal,” said Baylee Crone, the executive director of the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans in Washington, D.C. “That doesn’t mean that the work we’re doing stops.”

Far from it. A year later, Al Jazeera America tracked down and revisited those veterans and found that one died, one is in critical condition at a VA hospital, one is still housed, one moved out of a shelter and into housing and two, including Gill, disappeared.

Raymond McGinnis

A severe alcoholic, Raymond McGinnis was homeless on the streets of Hollywood for 17 years. The VA’s outreach teams of social workers, nurse practitioners, psychologists and formerly homeless veterans succeeded in getting him in a shelter and eventually into an apartment in Van Nuys more than two years ago.

He continue to struggle with alcoholism but stayed in the apartment. In December he went in to the VA Hospital in West Los Angeles for unspecified surgery. (To protect patient confidentiality, the VA won’t reveal details.) There were complications. He slipped into a coma and has been in that state since.

His apartment still awaits him.

Benjamin Samual Wahl

After staying in the PATH Hollywood center for eight months, Benjamin Samual Wahl, and his wife, Brandi, found an apartment in September 2014 using a voucher that she received from the Department of Mental Health.
Anthony Suau for Al Jazeera America
Brandi Wahl, left, and Benjamin Samual Wahl, with their Chihuahua-Sheltie mix, Zelda.
Anthony Suau for Al Jazeera America

Ben Wahl, a 29-year-old Philadelphia native, served in the Navy in the Persian Gulf. Diagnosed with mental disorders, he left before his two-year enlistment was up. That made him ineligible for HUD-VASH vouchers.

A year ago, he and his wife, Brandi Wahl, and their Chihuahua-Sheltie mix, Zelda, were at the Hollywood PATH shelter and were not happy about it.

They had to keep Zelda in a kennel in the garage. They had to sleep separately.

“We all joked it was like baby prison,” said Brandi Wahl, who has colored her hair blue and is writing a nonfiction book about her homeless experience.

“I want to expose that life,” she said. “I want to show that there are people who are homeless not just because they’re drug addicts but because their families abandoned them … That’s why we stay on the streets.”

The Wahls now are in an apartment near MacArthur Park — housing they obtained through a Department of Mental Health Section 8 voucher on the basis of mental problems that Brandi Wahl has. The voucher covers $416 a month. The rent is $466.

“I love my kitchen, but I hate this apartment,” Brandi Wahl said. “But this is better than PATH. Being on the street was better than PATH.

They spent nine months in the shelter.

“They almost kicked us out of the shelter,” said Ben Wahl, who recounted being covered with bedbug bites when he lived there.

He has a part-time job operating the 3-D Transformers ride at Universal Studios. But it’s not tourist season, and he gets only one shift every two weeks until spring.

Piles of dirty clothes were piled up in a corner of the living room. They had no money for laundry. They received a bed, but the rest of the furnishings are skimpy — just two chairs and a table. Brandi Wahl, who suffers from back pain, made a makeshift beanbag chair by stuffing a sheet with clothes. She sat on it to write as Ben Wahl rolled a cigarette.

“But you couldn’t pay me to go back to PATH,” he said. “I would go back to Venice first” and live on the beach.

Ivan Bennett

Ivan Bennett, an 85-year-old Army veteran who served in Korea in the 1940s used to walk miles around Los Angeles, wearing athletic pants and a headband. After months of trying, a VA team finally persuaded him to get off the streets. He had just moved into an apartment when Al Jazeera America first met him 14 months ago.

Donated furniture arrived a few days later, sending him close to tears. He clapped when a lamp was plugged in and light came on.

One day in July, Bennett went out for a walk, fell and hit his head. He was taken to a hospital and died. The VA team that was working with him did not find out about his death until a few days later.

Michael Brady

Michael Brady, 73, in his kitchen at the apartment he received with the help of the VA.
Anthony Suau for Al Jazeera America
Brady’s medications.
Anthony Suau for Al Jazeera America

Michael Brady, an eccentric 73-year-old Air Force veteran who was stationed in Morocco in the early 1960s, spent more than two decades on the streets and in motels until he finally agreed, with the VA’s help, to move into a Santa Monica apartment more than two years ago.

The adjustment was so difficult that he refused furniture for months. When he finally accepted, he continued to sleep on the floor. He has made progress. He just started sleeping on the couch. The full-size bed in his bedroom remained unused. He doesn’t watch TV. He just listens to the radio.

Brady had prostate cancer and stuck to radiation treatment, said Janel Perez, a VA nurse practitioner whom he lovingly teases by calling her “Nurse Ratched,” a reference to the cold-hearted mental institution nurse in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”

He was cheerful and talkative but suddenly launched into a disturbing family history. “In my previous life, I was ET. My grandfather is Lucifer,” he said.

It’s a sign Brady hasn’t been taking all his pills: 10 a day for his heart and acid reflux, some vitamins and his schizophrenia medicine. “You missed three whole days of medication,” Perez told him after she counted his pills.

It was time to visit his doctors at the VA. he got his walker, something he uses less for support than to carry all the bags and papers he can’t live without. One is a book manuscript. The title: “Dark Agenda.” “I’m about 40 percent done,” he said. “It’s Hitchcock-style.”

He hung bags in a plastic sling on his walker. He locked his door and checked it several times.

Brady hopped into Perez’s van and was off to the VA for a visit with a urologist. On his way, he was disturbed that he forgot his Pall Mall cigarettes.

“It’s my naughty little habit,” he said.

David Hauser

In the Navy from 1976 to 1978, David Hauser was living at the Hollywood PATH shelter a year ago. He had lived in temporary housing for three years and was ready to find work and get into permanent housing.

Then 55, Hauser applied for a HUD-VASH voucher. He carried folders filled with job applications. (He said he has three associate degrees in engineering and water treatment.) Like many others, he said that he had been rejected by family and was forced to be homeless after losing his job.

According to Tessa Madden, PATH’s director of development, Hauser got an apartment but has chosen to cut all ties to PATH. She said they have no idea where he is.