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Veteran homelessness is dropping, but jobs still hard to find

Hundreds of volunteers, including Secretary of Veterans Affairs Erik Shinseki, helped homeless veterans at a ‘Homeless Stand Down’ event Jan. 23, 2010, at the VA Medical Center in Washington, D.C.

RALEIGH — Strangers sometimes shake Hamp Beck’s hand to thank him for his military service in Vietnam. Cosmetology student Lauren Rolow went a step further and gave him a manicure.

Rolow’s uncle, grandfather and great-grandfather served in the military, and when she heard that Sherrill’s University of Barbering and Cosmetology was going to offer services at Friday’s Capital Area Vet Stand Down, she volunteered.

“I thought, ‘Why not come down here and help the people that fought for us?’” she said of the downtown Raleigh event.

The school was one of 40 agencies that set up at the annual one-day event that started as a way for homeless veterans to connect with some of the groups whose services could help them get off the streets. The Stand Down is now open to all veterans.

On any given night, about 30 of the 234 men staying at the South Wilmington Street Center, site of the Stand Down, are veterans, said John Youker, the shelter’s homeless veterans services officer. Each week, he said, three or four new vets come to the center asking for a place to stay.

The annual count of homeless people conducted for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development found 204 homeless veterans in Wake County in January, up from 141 the year before. But Youker said he thinks that’s because the area continues to attract veterans who think they will find better employment opportunities in this region.

Expanding veteran help

Across the state, and throughout the country, the number of homeless veterans has declined. In 2013, 9 percent of the adults in the homeless count in North Carolina were veterans, compared with 10 percent in 2012. Nationwide, 10 percent of the homeless adults counted this year were veterans. Last year, they made up 13 percent of the homeless population.

In 2009, when 16 percent of homeless adults were veterans, President Barack Obama and Eric K. Shinseki, the U.S. secretary of veterans affairs, said the administration would try to eliminate homelessness among veterans by the end of 2015. It’s working to do so by expanding and adding programs that help pay for housing, job training, legal assistance, financial counseling, transportation, child care, utilities and other needs of very low-income veterans.

Beck is one of those. He’s been homeless off and on for several years and at 62, he said he’s ready to get into a place of his own. He’s working his way through the transitional housing program at the Wilmington Street Center, which requires clients to get a job or other income, such as disability if they’re eligible for it, and to save most of the money so they can eventually afford to live on their own.

Beck, who said he served in the Army from 1971 to 1985 and did a tour in Vietnam, said he struggles sometimes with post-traumatic stress disorder and fought a drug addiction until 10 years ago.

He was doing well for years, he said, working in retail store management, but then got sick with diabetes and missed so much work he was let go. Eventually, he lost his apartment and began staying in rooming houses when he had a little cash, shelters when he didn’t.

He likes being around people, he said, and hopes to find another job in retail.

‘A positive attitude’

Robyn Merchant, 32, came to the Stand Down to try to make some job connections, too. An information services specialist with an Army Reserve unit attached to Fort Meade, Md., she moved to Raleigh in June after finding she couldn’t afford to live in the Washington area any longer. She left her job, loaded everything she owned into a rental car and headed south, expecting to land another job quickly as a network administrator or on a computer help desk.

That didn’t happen. She ended up living in the rental car for weeks, until she was able to get help with rent on an apartment through Passage Home, a faith-based nonprofit community development corporation.

Since she’s been here, Merchant figures, she’s applied for 200 jobs in her field, all online, without so much as an interview. In the meantime, she’s working part time offering food samples at a warehouse store.

She was too late to get a free haircut at the Stand Down, but she left satisfied.

“I met a lot of people today,” she said. “I’m hoping something might come of it next week. You have to keep a positive attitude.”

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