Our Homeless Vets

Just over a year ago, my buddy Tom arrived in Portland. I had been following his journey, as he rode his motorcycle up out of the deep South, blogging about his adventures, and headed this way to see family and possibly spend the holidays in the Portland area. I was excited at the prospects of getting the chance to see him, if only for a little bit, before his plans had him heading East and on to other parts unknown. He had just closed one large chapter of his life, and he was free – or adrift – to go and start a new one

After he arrived, we shared a meal and caught up, and I learned that he was flat on his ass. He bike was broken, he was flat broke, too, and he was sicker than a dog. He had nothing, had no plans for what he was going to do next, and was quickly running out of rope. “Come on,” I said, “come to our house until we get you in-processed into the VA.” He had just separated from the Army but hadn’t even done that yet, and hadn’t even filed his first VA claim.

And so it began. My year of struggling with what to do with, for and about Tom. My friend, my fellow Vet, this guy I met through a shared experience of combat in Iraq, who is now here in my new home city, but who is now wrestling with demons and is near the end of his rope. This has been a large part of my 2016. And if you ask any Veteran today – any combat Veteran, especially, from these wars in Iraq and Afghanistan – we can each likely tell you of our Tom. We have them. Our friend who is struggling.

I gave Tom the name the number of one of the Operation New Dawn case managers at the VA Hospital here in Portland.  Operation New Dawn – that was the name of the last phase of operations in Iraq while we were there, and OND is the slang for it. Tom deployed in support of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan himself, while in the Army, and he was there as a contractor during one of my deployments. As a Veteran, and a combat Veteran, the VA has case managers set aside for those who have deployed to these recent wars, as they are a special demographic. Yes, I know this as they are part of the team that I interface with there. I put Tom in touch with one I will call Mike. “He needs to in-process, he’s going to need medical care, and it sounds like he needs a place to stay for the near to mid-term while he gets these medical issues at least resolved,” I explained to Mike.

And the best past is, Mike just said, “Done and done.” Countless women and men serve in the military, and then want nothing to do with the VA and do not make contact with or register with the VA. And that’s fine – there’s no requirement to do so. But when it comes time to do so, Vets can at times become hesitant to try, because they think or know that they have have lost or no longer have access to their medical records and fear being able to establish their eligibility to qualify for benefits under the VA, or to complete the VA enrollment process.

Or, like in this case, Tom didn’t have shit. And with homeless Vets, or after a fire, or after decades and just life, this happens. The VA knows this. The VA has all the provisions and means necessary to help a Veteran re-establish their necessary documentation in order to complete enrollment and establish eligibility with the VA. Which is what Mike helped Tom do, by putting him in touch with the right people at the VA here in Portland.

Suddenly, Tom was getting full medical care. Suddenly, he was getting seen by doctors. Suddenly, he had folks – not just Mike – helping him with his claims for benefits from the VA, with regards to his time in the Army and the Marines.

And suddenly, he had a place to stay. Done and done. It really was like that.

Portland and the communities around it have been making a great effort in this past year, to ease homelessness among Veterans – and for at-risk veterans like Tom. When we moved to the city, this was just as the big scandals with the VA were breaking in the news. A number of main VA facilities and centers around country – and not just Arizona, where the scandal broke – received special attention and focus, as a means of addressing special problems. Portland because a focus for addressing backlog of patient wait times, but also this special effort to address homelessness. Here, at the end of 2016, Portland, the VA, and its partners are being recognized for all that they have done and done so well.

And so for me, it’s been especially difficult over this past year to watch my friend slide down this greased slope again. In early 2016, with hard work from Mike and others, Tom transitioned out of a VA homeless shelter in downtown Portland and into a VA residence across the river in Vancouver. The VA scored him a cell phone and also gave him access to bus passes to get around. Zavi and I fixed up an old but functioning desktop so that he could get onto the VA WiFi network there on the Vancouver network. He was back to actively researching and writing, and this seemed like a great set of tools. I gave him one of our LTE-enabled Android tablets, too, to help keep him connected, and to help pass the time, since it was also connected to things like our Netflix.

Probably the best part was that he was getting medical care. All those nagging aches and pains weren’t “nothing” but were apparently something, and whatever it was, he and his doctors were sorting it out. And for me, that was great news. I have no idea what it was – none of my business – but it’s always great to hear that people are getting the medical care that they need. Costs and access shouldn’t come between people and the medical care they need. He’d only planned to stop in Portland long enough to see family for the holidays but here he was, getting needed medical care. Good deal.

And through all this, Tom and I saw each other every few weeks or every month or so. We certainly stayed in touch on email, SMS and on social media. For me, a big part of this was not so much what his plan was, but that he had a plan. The kinds of things with which he needed weren’t things that I could resolve, obviously – his wife hadn’t kicked him out because he went to a bachelor party and cheated on her, but he still had a job and a car and kids and a mortgage. No, I understood that I could and should be as supportive a friend as I could be, but that also included being on point to ensure that he was using the whole of the system to catch back up to where he needed to be. And in the military, we do that – we check on each other.

By this summer, Tom started making plans to return to school. He’d be able to return to Portland State, right here in town, and take some classes. The VA also helped find a group home in nearby Beaverton to which he could move and live, for free, and where he would be able to stay as he transitioned into resuming his studies and until he found a job that would support his new student lifestyle. I helped him make the move to this new facility. But as the semester approach and was about to begin, Tom announced that he was deferring and going to start in January – he just didn’t have his act together.

And then one day in early November, he showed up at our house, asking to crash for a few days.  He wasn’t staying at the place in Beaverton anymore. He only had a day pack. He looked like hell. It went a little bit like this.

  • Day 1: Absolutely, come on in. Get settled, get a shower, make yourself at home.
  • Day 2: What’s your plan? Have you talked to Mike or anyone at the VA? I don’t care what the plan is so much as you’re working with Mike or someone to come up with a plan, if you’re not staying at the place in Beaverton. (starts making calls)
  • Day 3: (hides in basement, avoids us)
  • Day 4: (hides in basement, avoids us)
  • Day 5: (sneaks out and leaves while I am running errands)

After he left, I didn’t hear from him – not an email, not a text message, not a posting on social media. Nothing. Radio silence.

I waited. One week. Two weeks.

I waited.

My term ended. Finals. A conference at which I was presenting. Still nothing.  No responses back from him on anything I sent.  None of our friends had heard from him.

Finally, I was able to piece it together that he’s with the VA. Not sure what he’s doing, and again, not really any of my business, but he’s accounted for now.

But the thing is, Tom’s been one bad break away from being totally down and out, and sleeping under an overpass. In not hearing from him, yeah, that’s what I thought could have happened here again. Either he had landed in some kind of medical care program with the VA, or moved on to be with family somewhere back East for the holidays and just isn’t on the ‘net, or he’s gone to ground and is under an overpass.

It only takes one, or a few, changes in variables and there you are.

We have a lot of Veterans like this. A lot.

Just keep an eye on them. Check in on them. It isn’t that you need to be their plan, it’s that they need to have a plan. And if the VA isn’t their plan – and some have some serious and legitimate issue with the VA – just ask them with whom they have their plan. Because they need to have one. Don’t let them be one failure away from sleeping under a bridge.

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