BETA

Ground breakers

Graphic by Alex Swanson

The man had been sleeping in the bottom of the stairwell for years. From the top of the parking garage staircase, one could hardly make out what was curled up in the V-shaped wedge on the first floor. But from the ground, when the bundles of clothes and food wrappers and blankets came into focus, it was clear that this was one man’s home.

He belongs to one of the most vulnerable subsets of the U.S. population: he is a veteran. Men and women like him, who have serve in the armed forces, often come home to suffer from the psychological trauma of war, combined with the physical degradation of battle. Some find it hard to maintain relationships and keep jobs.

Veteran’s Affairs Offices across the country are designed to help these veterans gain access to the services they need to get back on their feet. But often what they need most is a place to call home—something that is hard to come by in a country where rent prices are rising and HUD subsidies are being slashed.

It is the compounding of these medical, psychological, and economic factors that have led to a national epidemic of veteran homelessness. And it is an epidemic: HUD estimates that in January 2013, 57,849 veterans were homeless on a single night.

Tonight, though, this veteran isn’t. After being found by outreach coordinators in Westchester County, he, along with more than 330 other veterans from the area, have moved into permanent homes. Hundreds of others are in transitional housing or supportive shelters. Not one is on the streets for more than 90 days.

***

Westchester’s new, energized approach to rehousing homeless veterans is called the Patriot Housing Initiative, a county-wide anti-homelessness campaign that began in 2013 as part of a national campaign called “100,000 Homes.” Launched at the 2010 National Alliance to End Homelessness conference, the four-year program was driven by Community Solutions, a non-profit dedicated to ending homelessness, and supported by local organizations, a data-driven social change nonprofit called Rapid Results, and government bodies like HUD and the Veteran’s Affairs office.

In 238 communities across the United States, key players in homeless organizing participated in boot camps guided by Community Solutions, learning how to build coalitions and improve efficiency in housing processes that had thus far been so halting and disjointed. The goal was simple: house 100,000 homeless veterans and chronically homeless individuals by July, 2014.

In Westchester, the goal was slightly more specific: drive the number of homeless veterans in the county to functional zero. And keep it there.

The Patriot Housing Initiative was developed by Karl Bertrand (a social worker, community organizer, and self-proclaimed “Village Dreamer”) after he participated in a Community Solutions Rapid Rehousing Boot Camp in August 2013. Together with co-chairs Felicia Ramos and Annette Peters-Ruvolo, Bertrand gathered a team of social workers, outreach coordinators, case managers, nonprofit heads, and government officials from 85 homelessness and veterans organizations around Westchester.

“All we have to do is work together in ways we never have, to do things we’ve never done,” Bertrand remembers telling the group winkingly at their first meeting. “To make change happen faster than we ever dreamed possible.”

Housing any homeless population is complicated, and even with expanded government services for returning servicemen and women at the VA, the path to permanent housing for veterans is usually long and frustrating. Applicants for shelters and public housing developments need a confusing cocktail of drivers’ licenses, Social Security numbers, medical records, and birth certificates. To get into some public housing developments, they need job history and references. And it helps to have outreach coordinators that can match them with the right type of housing, in the right neighborhood, with the right services.

Without an initiative like Patriot Housing to jostle the sticky cogs of government machinery into expedited motion, housing one person can take months, or even years. That means if a veteran suffering from mental health and substance abuse issues relapses, or gets laid off from their job, or goes to prison, or divorces their spouse, and subsequently loses their home, they could spend hundreds of cold nights waiting on the street or in crowded shelters.

The Patriot Housing group has met each Friday at noon for the past two years in a small room in White Plains, N.Y., using their breadth of knowledge, expertise, and access to facilities to do the jostling. Together, they develop individualized housing packages for every single homeless veteran they encounter.

But the story of Patriot Housing lies not only with the team that used guerilla-like force to push through the inert molasses of government bureaucracy. Nor does it lie only with the Westchester housing placement systems themselves, whose wheels are now so greased that any homeless veteran that pops up on the radar will be housed within 90 days.

“No one cares about how we did it,” Howard Charton, the program director at Breaking Ground, a VA transitional housing facility, says. It’s about what they did, and for whom.

Grounded

Richard Anderson

Richard Anderson tiptoed down the steps of his Mount Vernon home at 3 a.m. one morning in 1980, and left through the front door. When his family woke up the next day, no one knew why he had gone, or where he was going. “I wanted to do this on my own,” Richard recalls. “I didn’t want any feedback, I didn’t want any discussion, it was just what I wanted to do.” He slipped past his mother, shut the door, hopped into the car of a commanding officer, and drove straight to the airport. He was headed for an army base in Fort Knox, Kentucky.

Richard was in his early 20s when he made this decision to join the military. He was out of high school and stuck in a dead-end job at the post office that he hated. It was the Jimmy Carter era: 52 hostages were being held in Iran, and the Cold War was reawakening. In service of his country, Richard hoped to find a sense of direction, a purpose, an education. “It was my brain that I wanted to enhance, instead of my pockets,” he says earnestly. “Or, well, it was both.”

Richard was stationed in Fort Knox for a little under a year, until his right hand was injured in an explosion during training. He lifts it from the arm of the chair he sits in 40 years later, and flexes his fingers. “It’s ugly, it’s blown up. It’s hard to talk about.” Two of his fingers are swollen, the nails shriveled. It still hurts.

After returning home with an honorable discharge, Richard wound up right back in the post office he had escaped, and began getting into trouble on the street without the structure of the military to ground him. The police gave him the option of jail or the Montrose VA, so he chose the latter. A 28-day program turned into a three-month program that turned into a year-long program—eventually, it turned into a full rehabilitation, and a job in biomedical engineering with the VA office.

But then came the drinking again.

“What I don’t understand,” he begins. He gets up and adjusts his belt, pulling up his khaki pants and clearing his throat. “What I don’t understand is why I went to jail so many times.” He closes his eyes and when he opens them, they’re red.

“But I did. Something was telling me something back then, but… I really couldn’t stop drinking. I just couldn’t.”

Doug Ferguson

When Doug Ferguson was 18, growing up in South Jamaica Queens, his father laid down an ultimatum: either you straighten up or you join the army. So Doug decided to enter the Air Force as a military policeman in December of 1987. He spent the next few years traveling around the world, a blur of countries and army bases and “heading down the right path,” as his father had always wanted.

Doug met his wife, another Air Force officer, while stationed in Oxfordshire, England in 1976, and they married a few years later. When they had kids, they brought their two daughters and one son with them from base to base, settling in Pigleeson, Germany for most of 1986. While Doug and his wife worked and their daughters were in school, Doug liked to send his two-year old son to an Oma and Opa that lived on a farm down the street, where he could play with the cows.

Doug’s wife had started taking their son to another babysitter, though, the wife of an active military man who lived in base housing. One day, at the babysitter’s house, Doug’s son fell off a chair. He fractured his larynx, had a heart attack, and passed away suddenly. “A freak accident, they called it,” Doug remembers, his bottom lip twitching slightly. Doug won’t say what he thinks happened; but accepting the Office of Special Investigations’ report that his son fell off a chair was impossible.

Fourteen years, 11 months, and 28 days after joining, Doug left the military, and his wife. “Two weeks after she moved him there, that happened to my son,” Doug says. “And I shouldn’t have blamed her, but I never forgave her.”

His wife went on another assignment in Belgium, and Doug went to Omaha, Nebraska with his daughters, working as a corrections officer by day and a security guard at the local nightclub, Cleopatra’s, by night.

Things were going well, Doug says. Then came a call from his father laden with an unidentifiable tension that scared him—“I heard something in his voice and I could tell something was wrong”—so Doug quit his job and moved back to New York. Six months later, his father died of a heart attack.

“My world was really spinning then,” Doug says. “You know, first the broken marriage, then my father passed away… And he was the last one—my mother was gone, sister was gone, son was gone. He was the last one besides my older brother.”

One year after that, and five years after returning from active duty, Doug was locked up on Riker’s Island.

John Ellert

John was never one of those guys who’d always dreamed of uniforms and guns. But then again, neither were most of the men on the plane headed to the Republic of South Vietnam with him.

It was June 1967, the anniversary of the Invasion of Normandy, and the biggest draft of the Vietnam War had just finished—John, age 21, had been chosen. His father and uncles and friends had all served in the military, and he didn’t have much of a say in the matter, so he went.

He arrived in South Vietnam in November, 1967— just in time to celebrate the Year of the Monkey in January 1968 with the launching of the Tet Offensive. The campaign pitted the Viet Cong and People’s Army of Vietnam against the South Vietnamese, and the United States.

As a military policeman, John’s job was to work with local militia on “village pacification,” maintaining the integrity of small villages from Viet Kong infiltration. He paddled stealthily down streams in river boats and conducted ambush recon as the Viet Kong swarmed.

The Tet Offensive only lasted for two months, but John stayed in South Vietnam for 14 and a half—he remembers missing two Thanksgivings, two New Years, and two Christmases at home.

In January 1969, John returned to his home in Eulid, a neighborhood on the South shore of Long Island, near its border with Queens. John got his GED, went to community college, drove cabs, and unloaded trucks at the post office.

Being home was hard: anti-war sentiment was feverish, and John had a lot of difficulty fitting back in. “There was no ‘welcome home,’” John says. Peers were protesting against the war, not embracing those who had risked their lives in it.

By Christmas Day in 1970, John had dropped out of college and started working a new job on a loading dock in Hell’s Kitchen that he calls “a breeding ground for alcoholism and addiction.” He didn’t get out for 27 years.

***

Those who join the army are united by a love of country, a lack of fear, and a willingness to sacrifice. But they’re also united behind a wall of insurmountable obstacles they face once they return from fighting—I could have spoken with any three veterans, and they could have shared similar stories of pain. Nearly a quarter of all veterans suffer from some sort of mental health issue like Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, depression, and traumatic brain injuries. Nearly a quarter of those also suffer from substance abuse issues.

These disorders often lead to violence and crime, which in turn lead to jail time—in 2012, Bureau of Justice statistics state that approximately 181,500 veterans were confined to prisons and jails, 16% of which were serving life sentences. Fifty five percent of incarcerated veterans have a mental health disorder, and 23% of them have PTSD.

Richard, Doug and John are products of these coalescing issues, even if not all of them have suffered from each. In retelling their stories they echo a similar phrase: Without Patriot Housing, I would have been another statistic.

***

Losing Ground

Richard Anderson

For 15 years, Richard was a bio-medical technician at the Montrose VA. He had a great paying job, a status, a title—but he was also hiding his growing alcohol addiction, and a full rap sheet of DWIs. When the VA found out about an upcoming trip to jail, Richard resigned.

After getting out of jail that first time, Richard started working the night shift at Home Depot, unloading boxes. After getting out the second time, they took him back, and made him a supervisor. After the third, he was promoted to manager. He laughs, remembering. “Yeah, it’s crazy,” he says, but they loved him there and he loved the work.

After that final stint in jail, Richard committed himself to finally overcoming his addiction, and regaining the stability he craved. But one night he was driving home from a friend’s house, and got caught for speeding. The police officer pulled up his information, and saw the long list of prior DWI’s—Richard insisted that he hadn’t been drinking, and passed all the backwards-forwards-alphabet, walk-in-a-steady-line, stand-up-straight tests. But he refused to blow into a machine, because he didn’t trust the police officer’s accuracy or objectivity. “Take me to the hospital, I’ll get my blood drawn,” he said. They refused, arrested him, and handed him a court date.

“When I get to court, I knew I had to be getting out. But they said no. They said because there’s no proof that you weren’t,” Richard recounts. “There’s also no proof that you were….” That didn’t matter. At the defense stand in a country whose fundamental liberties he had pledged to protect, Richard was considered guilty when he couldn’t be proven innocent.

This time, he went to federal prison, and stayed there for two years. When Richard got out, he was $25,000 in debt, his credit was shot, and he had no apartment to return to.

Doug Ferguson

After his father died, Doug continued living and working in Queens. His ex-wife had moved to Florida with the kids, and he was alone and dealing with the haunting effects of PTSD. He doesn’t mind talking about the hardships in his life, but likes to keep this part brief: “My wife’s brother came at me with a weapon and the weapon ended up being used on himself,” Doug explains, and leaves it at that.

“I was former law enforcement, with no record. Everybody knew the type of individual he was,” Doug says, extending his arm to indicate the length of his ex-brother-in-law’s criminal history. But he died, and Doug was convicted of murder in the second degree.

Doug spent 2 years at Riker’s, 13 years at Sing Sing, and then 5 at the Fishkill Correctional Facility. None of his stays were particularly eventful, he insists: Doug avoided the “knuckle- heads,” worked long hours in the mess hall, and went to classes at Mercy College using the Pell Grant. After 20 years, he approached the end of his sentence with a dawning realization: he had no where to go once he got out.

John Ellert

“I won’t get into the negative stuff so much,” John says, trying to breeze past 30 years of flop houses in the Bowery, abandoned buildings downtown, addiction, failed relationships. There’s a lot of other successes to focus on—a few degrees, a job at a non-profit, a wife—but his voice catches at the dark gaps in history until he breathes and gives in.

After beginning work at the loading dock, John’s PTSD began to worsen, and the flashbacks and nightmares gave way to self-medication and anger. He’d flit from house to house and relationship to relationship. The only steady part of his life was his job at the loading dock.

“I lived like that until September 22, 1990,” John remembers. “That’s when I went to Indiana for PTSD and substance abuse rehabilitation.” The decision was his own, he says: he was beat up, he was sick, and he was toxically addicted. Miraculously, the rehabilitation seemed to work, and John didn’t use a drink or a drug for 21 years.

He returned to New York, stayed out of trouble, worked at a post office, and took an early retirement in 2000. He got married in 2001, then went to graduate school for an MS in Education and Rehab Counseling, and got a high-ranking job as the vocational coordinator and director of a non-profit that worked with the Manhattan homeless.

But the next chapter of his story is laden with a cruel irony that’s hard to process: like Richard’s, it’s a tale of hitting rock bottom and resurfacing, only to be pushed back under the waves. In 2014, John and his wife separated, and he relapsed. He moved out of the illegal sublet they shared, and back into a life on the streets and, depressed, sleeping in the shallow bottoms of boats, on friend’s dirty floors, outside.

After decades of sobriety and positivity, John had gone from helping homeless New Yorkers to again becoming one himself.

Breaking Ground

Karl Bertrand sat down for breakfast on the second day of the Rapid Rehousing Boot Camp and scanned the room. It was filled with community organizers from across the country, and the national leadership of HUD and the Veteran’s Affairs office.

“Whoever asks the hardest question gets a five dollar Starbucks card,” the facilitator promised the group. Bertrand raised his hand defiantly. “How can HUD expect us to house veterans more quickly when they’re slashing homeless funding, Section 8 funding, and public housing funding?”

The contest was immediately declared closed.

In 2013, HUD funding had been squeezed for years by 2011 sequestration spending caps, which had cut important government programs and left thousands of families without access to Section 8 Housing.

Two years later, Bertrand’s accusation, and the deleterious repercussions of the 2011 Budget Control Act, still ring true. In his 2016 Budget proposal, President Obama highlighted a commitment to ending homelessness, calling for approximately $5.5 billion of federal funding in targeted homelessness assistance across multiple government agencies and programs. But a Senate bill funding HUD, approved in July 2015, has been accused of not doing enough to reverse the damage that the 2011 policies wrought on the HUD.

According to analysis by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, this Senate bill cuts maintenance and repair of public housing by $132 million; cuts state funding for affordable housing from 900 million to 66 million; and does not replace funding for the 85,000 families denied housing choice vouchers due to sequestration.

In 2013, even without the knowledge of current hypocrisy, Bertrand was frustrated that HUD expected communities to pick up all the slack. Besides, “Government agencies always talk about ending things. Usually things don’t get ended, they just get ameliorated a little,” Bertrand says.

But by 2013, other communities like Phoenix and Salt Lake City had already met their housing goals, and Bertrand already had experience wrangling local organizers to achieve rapid change—he’d built the Yonkers homeless shelter in 14 days.

“Part of what happened that was really sort of magical was persuading us that it was possible,” Bertrand admits. But once he was convinced, he went into overdrive—and took the rest of Westchester homelessness organizers along with him. They embarked on their first 100-Day Challenge that same summer, giving themselves a deadline of 100 days to house every homeless veteran in Westchester County.

100-Day Challenges were a consistent push across every community that participated in the 100,000 Homes campaign, and the motivation behind them is self-evident: if you give yourself shorter deadlines, things happen faster. But they also imbue Bertrand’s retelling of the process with an odd, frenzied tone.

“When we first started, we’d be announcing the countdown. I’d beat my fingers like drums. It was exciting,” he says. We’re speaking over the phone, but I imagine his eyes are blazing. He tosses around exclamations like “We’re going to get this goddamned veteran housed if it’s the last thing I do!” and “If he’s not housed by Thanksgiving, I’m adopting him.”

The notion of competing against the clock instilled an unhealthy, obsessive quality to the 100 days, but the results were undeniable. To reach a high, aggressive miracle goal like this, feverish action is required.

“I’m like the guerrilla fighter that sort of races around doing new and outrageous things. I’ve been the inspirer, and the nagger,” says Bertrand. “But we managed to infect people with enthusiasm all up and down the chain of command.”

When Bertrand asked the Deputy Commissioner of the Department of Social Services, Phil Gille, to find a way to expedite moving allowances for veterans, Gille invented a county government unit solely dedicated to service planning and case management for people who’ve been chronically homeless. When Bertrand asked the county for a new Homelessness Services manager, a new one was hired within a few weeks. When he asked Felicia Ramos, the Patriot Housing co-chair, to find a way to expedite the application process for special supportive housing subsidies, she found it. Now, if an application is submitted with all the right paperwork, she can issue a rent check in three days, and find an apartment in another three.

Westchester didn’t only need to build entirely new programs, however. Patriot Housing worked to revamp those that already existed, bring them closer together, and make them move faster.

Breaking Ground is one such program—a transitional housing service for homeless veterans based at the Montrose Veterans Association. The service provides on-site case management, health services, psychiatric help, counseling, and job placement to the 96 veterans that live there at a time. Breaking Ground aims to transfer every veteran into permanent housing and out of unemployment at the end of their stay, which averages eight months, and is at its maximum two years.

Howard Charton is the program director at Breaking Ground. He’s the chill to Bertrand’s frenetic: he has a full beard and mustache, and a just barely visible tongue ring flits between his teeth when he he smiles, which is often, or when he talks, which is calmly. He exudes a humility that’s refreshing, and a positivity that veterans who know him say is contagious.

Breaking Ground has housed over 4,000 veterans in its 25-year history, but Charton says they’ve completely revitalized their system of outreach and rehousing in the two years since Patriot Housing began. Veterans who go into Breaking Ground need specialized services—either they have so much debt they can’t afford a permanent house yet, or need 24/7 hospital access, or just don’t feel ready to transition into living on their own. At weekly Patriot Housing meetings, as the team discusses the idiosyncrasies of each individual veteran that needs housing, Breaking Ground representatives listen out for the cases that fit their program the best, and offer up a bed. Charton works with Bertrand to make sure each veteran has Section 8 vouchers, a landlord that accepts them, and funding for furniture to fill an apartment before they leave.

The program’s name was changed to “Breaking Ground” from “Common Ground” a year and a month ago—as Charton says, quoting their rebranding literature with only a trace of irony, “There’s nothing Common about us!”

Richard, Doug, and John can all attest to that. Richard was able to get rid of his $25,000 and get his own place and job through Breaking Ground, and Doug used it as a launchpad to get back on his feet, taking culinary classes during the morning and working at the VA in the afternoons.

“They say baby don’t cry, baby don’t get milk. There’s people that will help you, you just gotta reach out,” Doug says. “Without their help, I don’t know where I would have been. I didn’t have anything. I started all over.”

In December of 2014, John entered the Breaking Ground program. And a year later, John had a place of his own. While we talk on the phone, he’s slurping noodles at his very own kitchen table, and has just taken a walk around his very own neighborhood.

“I never really think I’m going to get the help I need, that’s kind of the attitude I had,” John says, but Breaking Ground was exactly that help he needed. When he got there, he was so depressed he could hardly speak. By the end of his time, he was best friends with his roommate, facilitating recovery meetings, and taking golf lessons. He got treatment for Hepatitis D at the VA hospital, and is now disease-free; he went to AA and Narcotics Anonymous groups three times a week, and has been sober for a year.
“I guess I’m the same guy I was when I got in,” John says, then pauses. “But not as much.”

One Response

  1. […] I follow the lives of three formerly homeless veterans—from deployment, to homelessness, to rehabilitation—who were rehoused as a part of Westchester’s Patriot Housing Initiative. Read my cover story in The Yale Herald here. […]

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