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Homeless vets find refuge

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 11, 2011 - Veterans have suffered in the poor economy like everyone else, losing their homes to foreclosure, getting laid off, getting sick and depressed. At the last official count on a given night in January, 76,329 veterans were homeless in the United States, up from 75,609 the same time last year.

But veterans have a safety net they earned through their military service -- the Veterans Administration.

"In many cases, the VA doesn't get the credit due them," said David Fuss, 45, who is one of 35 veterans in a program for the homeless at the Jefferson Barracks VA Medical Center in south St. Louis County.

The Dom

David Fuss sits in his room in the Dom.

The domiciliary at Jefferson Barracks is one of 67 such programs around the United States connected to the VA and funded as a mental health program.

The VA budget proposal for fiscal 2012 -- still awaiting approval by Congress -- would provide $939 million (an increase of $140 million) for the VA's homeless reduction programs. Most of that money goes to community programs and HUD vouchers. An additional $50 million has been proposed by the Department of Labor for its homeless veterans reintegration program, which provides funding for some agencies that partner with the Dom.

"I didn't know where to turn before the VA," Fuss said. "They graciously took me in, gave me medical care, encouragement, direction, a place to stay, so I can gather my thoughts and move on."

Fuss served 22 years in the Army National Guard, including two years in Kuwait doing intelligence work for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He retired as a captain. When he got home to Manchester, Tenn., in 2006, Fuss took his $50,000 in combat pay savings and bought a house.

Fuss had a good job with a manufacturer of automotive parts. But two years later as the automotive industry "tanked," and the company laid off two-thirds of its 1,500 employees, Fuss suffered a series of job downgrades and pay cuts -- from $18 an hour as a manager to $10 an hour as an operator. Fuss lost his house to foreclosure.Then he got laid off.

"I started drinking heavily," Fuss said. "I moved up here (to St. Louis) to be with my parents. My father is very ill." But his parents "couldn't live with my drinking." Fuss checked himself into the Cochran VA Medical Center in midtown St. Louis in August and was referred immediately to the substance abuse treatment program at Jefferson Barracks. Midway through his second week there, Fuss applied to enter the VA's domiciliary program for homeless vets.

The program, called simply, the Dom, has five phases:

  • Turning Point, two weeks of assessment and introductory classes.
  • Life Skills, four weeks of classes and counseling in such topics as stress management, money management, anger management, rational living, improving relationships, nutrition and healthy habits, spirituality and overcoming addictions.
  • Job Seeking, including four weeks of employment in the medical center, learning such "soft skills" as getting along with co-workers and supervisors, punctuality and customer service. Veterans work with a vocational rehabilitation counselor to hone their job search and interview skills.
  • Transition, whose duration is the most variable, in which the employed veteran starts and maintains a job and saves his or her money and searches for a place to live.
  • After Care, including weekly meetings on such topics as 12-step peer support for overcoming addictions, recreation therapy and reviews of many issues discussed earlier in treatment.

"We're getting a lot more veterans coming for their first time," said Lenora Brown, program director of the Dom. She believes that is because the program does a better job of helping veterans the first time and because of the economy.
Rather than expel Dom participants for any relapse into addiction, the program now allows them to stay and work on their problems. "Their recovery is fragile, they need more support" than the program gave in the past, Brown said. "They also stay longer. We're giving them more chance to get stable employment and stable housing."

Gary Meyer, a Dom assistant, believes that the program does a better job now in getting veterans involved in their own treatment. Eric Shinseki, secretary of Veteran Affairs, in 2009 announced a five-year plan to eliminate homelessness among veterans. Before Shinseki's announcement, "we gave veterans a limited amount of time to make progress," Meyer said. "Now we ask 'what are their needs,' instead of kicking them to the curb for their mistakes."

'i woke up in a fog'

Lisa Shelley, 56, a veteran of the Vietnam era, said she suffered a relapse after her first 30 days in the program. Unlike many veterans who first come into the program because of substance abuse, Shelley's medical problem is depression.

One morning in the Dom, "I woke up in a fog. I went to my support group and said I need some help. They helped me make it through." When she was interviewed earlier this week, she was celebrating her 50th day at the Dom.

The Dom is seeing more women veterans, Brown said, because more women have entered the military. The VA is also making more effort to reach out to women with special programs and promotions.

Shelley served three years in the Army from 1978 to 1981, performing classified work at a missile silo. She worked for AT&T for 25 years, first in St. Louis and then in Atlanta.

Shelley was married for 12 years. "He went to work, came home and drank. My job was to take care of my daughter. I never questioned anything until he hit me. Then I took my daughter and moved out of state."

She advanced into management at AT&T and was making $83,000 a year when she was laid off in 2003. She took the company's relocation money and moved with her daughter to northern Virginia, where she got a job in a call center making $16 an hour. Her daughter married and two years ago had a baby diagnosed at birth with fetal alcohol syndrome. Shelley's son-in-law left his wife and baby at the hospital, and Shelley took them in.

"She couldn't work," Shelley said of her daughter. "We needed medicine and treatment" for both mother and baby. Shelley sent her daughter and grandchild to relatives and friends in St. Louis while she worked to get the money for deposits for utilities and an apartment here. In the meantime, Shelley lost her home in Virginia and began sleeping in her car.

For six months in 2009, Shelley worked the midnight shift at the call center and slept in her car in the company's parking lot during the day. On her nights off, she parked near the security cameras.

A year later, back in St. Louis, Shelley again was homeless. Her daughter had moved to Georgia and Shelley left her job as a live-in home-care aide for an elderly person because she didn't feel safe around the person's alcoholic son.

"All my life, I've taken care of everybody," Shelley said. "When I needed help, I turned around and there was no one. I've never known how to take care of me." She lived in her car from May to October. "I was so depressed, some days I couldn't get up."

Shelley want to the VA Medical Center at Cochran for treatment for migraine headaches. "The doctor there said 'we need to get you off the streets.'" She transferred to the Dom within hours.

"I was a mess, totally," she said. "I didn't care to exist anymore."

Shelley praised the Dom's vocational counselor for matching Dom participants "pretty good" with their medical center jobs. "I love to help people, and I get to do that every day." As a receptionist in the prosthesis department, she talked to outpatients in for a fitting or callers with questions or complaints. "They need somebody to talk to them," she said. "And it makes me feel like I'm somebody."

'I've never felt so respected'

Jason Crane, 38 and a native of Pinckneyville, Ill., was a top-secret electronic technician during Desert Storm, 1992-95. The Dom program "first saved my life, and now it's changing my life," he said.

His spiral downward started when his second child caught encephalitis as an infant. The daughter spent eight months in St. Louis Children's Hospital and was not expected to live. She's now 12 and healthy, but the stress on Crane and his wife and Crane's heavy drinking led to divorce.

"We worked opposite shifts to care for her and we didn't have a lot of time together," he said. "As my drinking got worse, my life got worse, and as my life got worse, my drinking got worse. I saw no hope."

He worked as a bricklayer until 2006, when the economic downturn began affecting the construction industry. Then Crane worked as a day laborer and was living in his car this summer before he admitted to VA doctors that he had a drinking problem.

"I'd withered down to 127 pounds," Crane said. "Now I have a nutritionist, my own voc-rehab counselor, my own doctors. For me, this gives hope, makes it a reality."

Crane is president of the Dom Advisory Council, elected by his fellow participants. "I'm getting to know my potential here," he said. "This is more than a job" for the VA staff, "I've never felt so respected when I had nothing at all."

Timothy Smith, vocational rehabilitation specialist for the Veterans Administration Medical Centers in St. Louis, says the hardest part of his job is letting employers know how veterans' skills learned in the military could be an asset in civilian jobs.

Unemployed veterans "are not looking for a handout, just an opportunity."

His job could be easier with the tax credit passed in the Senate Thursday: an increase in the tax credit for hiring disabled veterans out of work more than six months, to $9,600, and new tax credits of up to $5,600 for employers hiring veterans out of work at least half a year and $2,400 for those out of work for four weeks or more.

Employers interested in hiring veterans may call Smith at 314-652-4100, extension 65087.

Crane has enrolled in the online program of Liberty University in Virginia and plans to get an associates degree in Christian counseling. "The staff here has given me so much. I'm going to try to give back," he said.

Shelley graduated from her internal job this week and has continued her job search. She has qualified for a federal Housing and Urban Development housing voucher and is eager to begin searching for an apartment.

"I know a job is going to come," Shelley said.

The medical center jobs are called "incentive therapy," and pay a minimum of $2 an hour. "It's pivotal to our recovery," Fuss said. "Many veterans lose the ability to work alongside others and take directions from supervisors. IT integrates us back into the working mindset."

Fuss' IT assignment was working in the physical therapy department. "I worked with disabled veterans, amputees, stroke victims. It was very satisfying, seeing their progress, and helping along the way."

Fuss's goal is to get a job in manufacturing -- he has an interview next week -- get back on his feet and go to school to become a certified physical therapy assistant. "I'd love to come back and work for the VA."

Virginia Gilbert is a freelance writer in St. Louis. She was a student chaplain at Jefferson Barracks Veteran Administration Medical Center.

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