Many veterans in San Francisco back home without a hope 

Kevin Crane wants to be perfectly clear: He doesn’t have one bad comment about the U.S. military.

The 33-year-old veteran said he knew very well what he signed up for when he joined the U.S. Army after 9/11. He said he is proud of the brave souls who protect their country. Salutes are in order, he said.

Even though Crane left the service with a back injury, the responsibility to care for his kids while his ex-wife was serving in Iraq — and the struggle of competing in a tight job market — the vet, who recently emerged from homelessness in The City, refuses to badmouth the armed forces.

“There’s an old saying, ‘If the military wants you to have a family, they’d issue you one,’” Crane said.

Frank Knowlton will not talk trash, either. At 61, he still waves the American flag proudly.

The Vietnam veteran battled drug and alcohol addiction for years to suppress the memories of fallen friends — even “brothers” he unintentionally killed with friendly fire.

The demons had Knowlton living under a bridge in San Jose for months.

“I felt like scum,” he said.

That’s life, Knowlton adds, the world isn’t perfect. Even heroes in comic books carry scars and limitations. Unlike American soldiers, however, those heroes are almost always cheered when they come home.

“I felt proud when I came back, but I could hear people saying ‘Look at those guys, baby-killers,’” Knowlton said. “If these people only knew what we went through.”

And you do not have to go far to see the consequences of war, Knowlton said. Simply look out your window, down an alley or under a bridge.

It is estimated that around 3,000 of the roughly 10,000 homeless people on San Francisco streets are veterans — but that ratio could rise in the coming years as veterans trickle back from Iraq and Afghanistan.

While cities still struggle to find homes for downtrodden veterans of the Vietnam War, they are now starting to see an influx of soldiers returning from the Middle East who have become homeless due to the barrage of illnesses, injuries and shortcomings that trail them home.

There are an estimated 120,000 homeless veterans nationwide — as many as 60,000 of whom are chronically homeless,
according to local nonprofit Swords to Plowshares, which provides services to house, counsel and employ veterans.

California has the highest homeless veteran population in the nation, with the majority living in Los Angeles and The City, the nonprofit said. And as throngs of veterans from recent wars return home to a job market that logs more layoffs than openings and to a government support system that has only recently begun to allocate resources toward preventing mentally unhealthy veterans from a downward spiral, they expect a surge in the homeless vet population, experts said.

Many return home with post-trauma symptoms, a debilitating injury and an inability to readjust to normalcy after leaving for war as a child and returning as an adult. Some turn to suicide — a recent Veterans Affairs report revealed that as many as 18 veterans try to take their own lives each day in the U.S. Seven percent of those attempts are successful and 11 percent of those will try again within nine months, the report said.

Many cope by turning to drugs and alcohol — or becoming addicted to pain pills — a process that gradually degenerates into a situation where they cannot hold a job, they begin distancing themselves from family and friends and they stop showing up to appointments with counselors, experts say.

“They say it takes about five to seven years before we start seeing the result of folks not being able to cope,” said Roberta Rosenthal, regional homeless coordinator for the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Just finding a job has been hard-pressed for young veterans — particularly during a recession, said Derrick Felton, a readjustment counseling therapist and team leader for the Peninsula Vet Center.

A veteran’s battlefield résumé often cannot compete against peers who have college degrees and work experience, Felton said. And many young married veterans who have children no longer receive active-duty checks that supported the family, he said.

“To go back home and live with your parents is somewhat taboo,” he said. “To the average single person living alone, $1,600 a month might, I mean might, be able to make it.”

There are some solutions on the horizon. The Obama administration has pledged to push forward a five-year plan to end homelessness, which includes $75 million annually to fund vouchers vets can use to pay rent — as long as they seek case-management services.

Locally, advocates are pushing for more housing specifically for homeless veterans that will cater to their specialized needs. Next year, a renovation is set to begin at 150 Otis St., where 76 senior and homeless veterans in need of medical care will be housed.

To many veterans who once lived on the streets, it is up to the vets themselves to make a change.

Crane may have arrived in San Francisco without a job or a home, but he sought help from veterans’ services in The City and not only found housing, but a full-time job packaging collectable coins at The Mint.

Knowlton also tapped available resources, and said he is off drugs and alcohol, taking medication for post-trauma regularly, and living a happy life with other veterans in housing provided in San Francisco.

“Give it a try. You got to give it a try,” Knowlton said. “I swear it on the Bible, I’d much rather be bayoneted and shot than have depression.”

Housing vouchers reduce number of homeless vets

Vietnam veterans did not have a homeless prevention program, which led to a situation where more than 250,000 lived on the nation’s streets at any given time, federal officials said.

But efforts in recent decades to transition veterans into homes and stable living situations has reduced the number to roughly 120,000, according to the federal Department of Veterans Affairs, which is in the midst of a five-year plan to end and prevent current and future homelessness.

One of the more-touted aspects of that plan involves a subsidy program that provides Section 8 housing vouchers and services specifically for veterans. Since 2008, Congress allotted $75 million annually for the HUD-Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing Program, called HUD-VASH.

Each year, 10,000 homeless veterans nationwide receive vouchers to pay rent — as long as they regularly consult case managers, said Roberta Rosenthal, regional homeless coordinator for Veterans Affairs.

About 100 of the vouchers were allotted to San Francisco last year, and another 90 or so are expected this year, said Dariush Kayhan, the homeless policy director for the Mayor’s Office.

The vouchers have lured more of The City’s veteran population into seeking help at San Francisco’s Veterans Affairs Medical Center, Rosenthal said.

The same trend is true for the Peninsula Vet Center, officials said.

While the HUD-VASH program has been called a bold step forward toward ending veteran homelessness, some say it’s a failing solution for many chronically homeless vets with severe health problems.

Federal funding needs to include housing that is exclusive to vets that require more support than simply a rent check, said Leon Winston, COO at local nonprofit Swords to Plowshares.

“They don’t need another eviction,” Winston said.

Chronically homeless veterans “do well in veterans’ communities ... the shared experience has therapeutic value,” he said.
Winston said he’s been going back and forth to Washington, D.C., “to yell as loud as we can” for a revision to the federal program.

Life after wartime

120,000: Estimated number of homeless veterans in the nation

34,500 to 60,000: Estimated to be chronically homeless nationwide

25: Percent of homeless adults in San Francisco who are vets

14: Percentage of vets among S.M. County homeless population

27: Percentage prior to San Mateo County launching a homeless vet housing program

192: Number of vets being provided housing by Swords to Plowshares

200: Number of homeless vets on Swords to Plowshares housing waiting list

80: Percent of homeless visitors to emergency hospital system in San Francisco who were veterans during 2008-09

Source: Swords to Plowshares, San Francisco Project Homeless Connect, 2009 San Mateo County Homeless Census and Survey

maldax@sfexaminer.com

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