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Local veterans struggle to find the path out of homelessness

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Note: Names of all Rescue Mission patrons mentioned in this article have been changed at their request; some feared that people knowing they were homeless could prevent them from getting jobs, others had not told family members that they were homeless sought to protect their privacy.

The reality of being a homeless veteran

The office of support services for the Trenton Rescue Mission sits in an old building downtown. The organization provides emergency shelter and counseling services to the local homeless population. The off-white walls and tiled floor are well worn, the furnishings plain.

Veteran Ray Carter sits in the Mission’s waiting room listening to the hum of the ventilation system and muffled conversations snaking their way through the walls. Occasionally a staffer rushes through the room purposefully.

Carter, a 53-year-old army veteran, wears jeans, sneakers and a gray hoodie. He is medium height, muscular, with short gray hair, an angular weathered face and piercing gray eyes.

Having been asked if he can be interviewed about his experience as a homeless veteran, Carter leans in slightly, his voice low, and says: “This is not a place anyone wants to be.”

Carter is one of the 57,849 veterans nationwide that the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) estimates is homeless on any given night.

According to the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans (NCHV) website, approximately 12 percent of the adult homeless population are veterans, but it notes that “…flawless counts are impossible to come by” because “the transient nature of homeless populations presents a major difficulty” in gathering data.

The NCHV adds that “About 1.4 million other veterans, meanwhile, are considered at risk of homelessness due to poverty, lack of support networks, and dismal living conditions in overcrowded or substandard housing.”

As of November 19 2013 Ray Carter had lived at the Rescue Mission for ten weeks.

“None of my friends know where I am… because I’m ashamed of myself. It’s embarrassing, a man my age. Veteran’s day just went by and I’m a homeless veteran? I mean give me a break” he says with a sigh. “I couldn’t get a cup of coffee. So its hard…Its as low as it can get. I mean literally” he says.

Carter served in the army for six years. He was in the 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 82nd Airborne Rangers before finishing his career in the National Guard armory. In 1983 he was deployed to Grenada as part of Operation Urgent Fury.

During the fighting he was struck in the head and forearm by shrapnel. A piece of concrete lodged in his forearm is still visible. He asked the doctors not to remove it.

“I don’t even know what it’s from, if it was from one of ours or one of theirs.” Carter says.

In 2011 both of Carter’s parents passed away within weeks of each other. Neither of them had health or life insurance, leaving him and his sister to pay for the funerals. The resulting costs, combined with his lack of work due to the recession proved to be too much.

“I had notes against my house which I couldn’t repay. It all snowballed and I ended up losing my house.”

The bank foreclosed in August of 2011.

Financial and psychological paths to homelessness

Anthony Oakes, a Licensed Rehabilitation Counselor and Director of Veteran Housing at Community Hope, a non-profit organization that provides transitional housing for homeless veterans, estimates that he works with up to 500 veterans a year. He believes a key risk factor for veterans is psychological trauma.

“Generally what we’ve found is a veteran will become homeless –anyone will become homeless– for a hundred different reasons, but why a veteran might be more apt, is they tend to not ask for help until they’ve really exhausted everything. It all even stems from that… some might call it pride, some might call it a variety of other things, but in reality it is the concept of a veteran.” Oakes said in a recent interview with The VOICE.

After losing his home Carter took up residence with friends, exchanging labor for a place to stay.

“I basically removed myself from those situations because its just a burden for the people…So it works for a little while, but I just didn’t want to lose any friendships over it.” Carter says continuing: “Most people mooch off you as much as they can and then you have a handful of enemies instead of still having friends to fall back on.”

According to Oakes: “[Veterans feel] you have the ability to do anything and everything, and you should be able to do it. If you can’t, you’re weak. And so that’s the problem. It becomes a never-ending cycle; I can do this, I can do this, I can do this. And then eventually they tend to ask for help, but they’ve already dug themselves a pretty deep hole” says Oakes.

“Every veteran that I’ve talked to that might know other veterans struggling will say that that’s the issue, that they don’t want to ask for help, they see it as weakness.” Oakes concluded.

Ray Carter says that the pride he felt about owning his own home is at least part of the reason that he finds himself in his current situation: “I just loved the house too much. People told me to dump it like five years prior to this and that was right before the housing market crashed, but I wanted the house. I loved the place, I had so much put into it… If I wasn’t as stubborn and so proud of my freaking house… and now I don’t have it, I don’t have anything, I kick myself in the butt every day.”

Director of Veterans Services for Mercer County Community College and former Marine Sergeant with the 2nd Battalion 25th Marines Drew Daddio says: “Some veterans get this idea that they’re the only ones suffering with the problems. Especially in the  military mindset you always want to be the alpha, you don’t want to show any weakness so you don’t want to say ‘hey I’m having this problem right now’.”

One person Daddio works with on campus is Tyler Jackson, a current Mercer student who is receiving assistance from the G.I. bill. Jackson, who served in the Navy from 1982-1992 and then was discharged after three years of reserved duty, was evicted from his Philadelphia home in 2005. He ended up living in cars, shelters and missions, for years afterwards, though he is not homeless now.

While not officially diagnosed, Jackson believes he suffers from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

“I do have flashbacks to being on an aircraft carrier, scared to death, because you don’t know if a submarine is going to hit you, or a torpedo, you don’t know if something from the sky is coming…” Jackson says.

Leslie Young of Cornerstone Family Programs in Morristown is a licensed social worker who provides talk therapy through the clinics Military Veterans and Families program.

Young says: “I think undiagnosed PTSD could be the biggest factor [for homelessness] that’s not common to civilians.”

She characterizes the experience of PTSD saying: “someone who has experienced a trauma and then has a reliving of this trauma after the trauma is no longer part of their lives.”

According to Young, just being in combat can be a trauma: “There are things that civilians do every day, all the time, and we don’t even think about it, but for someone who’s trained in how to survive in very dangerous situations, coming back here brings a lot of triggers.”

Internal statistics at the Trenton Rescue Mission indicate that 68% of the veterans who stayed at the shelter in 2013 reported a mental health problem.

Lynzie Zimmerman is the Director of Support Services at the Trenton Rescue Mission and works closely with many homeless veterans, helping them in enrolling in various veterans assistance programs.

“It’s hard. The doors open at four PM and you stand in line so that you can get checked in and then you are served dinner and you can go to a room where you sleep… You can watch TV or go to bed. Most people are going to bed because they’re tired from being outside and wandering the streets all day.”

While the shelters such as the Trenton Rescue Mission can provide overnight solace, individuals are on their own once the next day has begun.

“They’re out the door at 8 am and they have all day to figure out what to do… Some people work, so they’re leaving and going to work and some people are in programs and some people are actively seeking employment.” Zimmerman says.

Data, the good and the bad

Nationally the total number of homeless veterans is believed to be decreasing. HUD estimates that the total number of homeless veterans on a given night is down 24 percent since 2009, and New Jersey has one of the lowest homeless populations in the nation. But a 2012 HUD report indicates that 14.5 percent of homeless adults in Mercer County are veterans, which is above the national average of 12 percent.

Increased government initiatives may be partly responsible for the dropping national numbers.

According to a Congressional Research Report entitled “Veterans and Homelessness,” In November 2009, the VA announced a plan to end homelessness within five years. Included in their plan was an increase in funding to the Veterans Association (VA), and also included $425 million dollars of additional funding for HUD-VASH, a program that provides section 8 housing vouchers to eligible veterans.

Daddio at Mercer says: “Up until a few years ago there weren’t as strong support systems put in place for a person separating from the military. They’d get out [of the military] and they’d be in [the service] one day and the next day they’d be like ‘ok… I’m done’. Its the end of a major chapter for a lot of the service members.”

Daddio has also noted a shift in the way the VA handles the medical needs of veterans, saying “Beforehand, even up until a few years ago with veterans who were dealing with post-traumatic stress or depression… it would just kind of be, medication [is the only solution]. The VA is doing studies now where they’re incorporating holistic methods, doing stuff like yoga and qi chi, meditation and guided meditation. Group work… helps them know that they’re not alone.”

 The daily dangers of homelessness

The Rescue Mission can provide shelter and a bed for the evening, but the other residents can be confrontational.

“People will test you, you know these guys are all Bloods or gang related and they’ll test you just to see how far they will push you or see if they’ll be able to control you” Carter says of his experiences at the mission.

Even standing in line can be hazardous he says, recounting a confrontation he had while waiting to get inside. “This kid got in my face and then I warned him, I said ‘I’m gonna warn you, don’t do it.’ And he did it, and I knocked him out right on the spot.”

Carter continues: “I’ve got combat experience. I was an expert in hand to hand combat; I’m not afraid and I can take care of myself even at my age, but some of these other [shelter residents] need people with them.”

When Jackson was first homeless, he too frequented shelters and experienced fear for his safety.

“I went in and out of shelters, the rescue missions, the shelters in Atlantic City, the shelters in Newark, all over the state of New Jersey” says Jackson.

He came to avoid shelters entirely, saying “Don’t ever go to a shelter because those are the situations where you will be in harms way. I was in a shelter in Newark, it was supposed to be a religious shelter, but you had individuals in there who were really really down on their luck. And they took it out on you, I mean who else could they take it out on, obviously, because you’re their next door neighbor, and they’re homeless and their mad, and I’m homeless and I’m mad, so there’s conflict.”

Staying out in the elements, even if he had a vehicle at the time, was always difficult for Jackson, especially in the cold.

“The only thing really would save me from time to time is I could go to the VA hospital…It was always a good thing in the back of a mind to know that I could go to the VA and try and get medical treatment for maybe I had frostbitten toes, which happened to me countless times” says Jackson.

 Securing an identity: the obstacle to getting care

Getting people help by enrolling them in assistance programs at shelters such as the Trenton Rescue Mission can be complicated because there’s no guarantee that an individual will continue to stay at the Mission, as there is no obligation to do so.

Zimmerman says “It’s difficult in this kind of environment to get people to move through , because I can grab you and sit down with you and talk to you today and say ‘this is our plan of action and what we have to do.’ That does not mean that person is going to be here tomorrow, or next week, or be here long enough to follow through with that. Because nothing happens right away. Nothing.”

Zimmerman says it is important for people seeking to be enrolled in programs designed to give aid to homeless veterans to stay, because the primary obstacle preventing veterans from getting assistance is their documentation not being in order, and getting the documents in order takes time.

“[All the aid programs] need you to have an ID, birth certificate and social security card. You may just think that that’s a normal thing that everybody has but when you are homeless that’s not a thing that you have, because you’ve probably moved multiple times and it got lost or your bag got stolen.” Zimmerman explains.

According to internal statistics at the Mission, out of the 129 residents staying there, only 60 had any monthly income, earning, on average, 349 dollars, with some earning less than a dollar overall. The most common sources of income are social security, disability insurance, and general public assistance.

“When you have no income or you have very low income, it’s very expensive to replace those things… Getting an ID here in New Jersey is a nightmare with the whole six points [for identification]. A birth certificate, if you’re born here its twenty bucks, not terribly expensive but it could be.” Says Zimmerman.

Complicating matters further, Zimmerman explains that oftentimes people need one form of ID to get another. For instance, in order to get a birth certificate you may need an official form of identification, which requires you to have a social security card, which the veterans may not have.

Even if your documentation is in order, being in certain income brackets can leave you in a state of public assistance limbo.

“I just had somebody in my office yesterday that was really upset because he’s a veteran and he feels as though he’s served his country and his country has turned its back on him.” Zimmerman says.

She goes on to explain that he made just enough that he couldn’t qualify for insurance but not enough to get out of the shelter.

Discharge status can have a major impact on a veterans ability to receive assistance. Anyone not honorably discharged may be denied assistance.

“And if they don’t have a copy of their DD-214 [honorable discharge form], that’s something that we can order for them.” Still, Zimmerman notes she has one person for whom she ordered the form and it still hadn’t come after three months.

She says wants to help but often “because you’re missing that piece of paper I can’t make that referral.”

 The uncertain future

Carter, who lost his DD214 in a house fire, has encountered this problem with trying to get the document replaced.

“I contacted them [the VA] September fourth… they just got back to me today (November 19th). If you’re not disabled or had your leg blown off, your hand blown off, you’re shuffled to the back with the VA, they don’t do hardly anything.” Carter says.

When all the problems pile up, Zimmerman explains: “You’re in this environment, and on top of [it] and all the stressors that go along with it, you now have all these hoops to jump through, that are going to take days and weeks and months to be able to accomplish. Do you want to be here for ninety days just because you’re waiting on a piece of paper?”

The future remains uncertain for Ray Carter and Tyler Jackson.

Carter describes his future prospects as “weak” though he is hopeful that things will improve, saying “I’ve got great qualifications, but I’m overqualified according to everybody… Finding work is all I need. I get a job, I’m set.”

Jackson is finishing his degree at Mercer, but worries that his housing situation will again deteriorate, despite acquiring his degree. “With this [degree], there’s supposed to be a position within the hospitality field. Will it materialize? Who knows.”

Additional reporting provided by Carlton Fedorko.

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