Catholic Charities program helps homeless veterans in crisis in Kansas
By Matt Riedl | The Wichita Eagle | Published: June 2, 2014
Adam Moreno has a home.
It’s a studio apartment just south of downtown that he lived in for more than a week without any furniture. But for Moreno, it’s a vast improvement over what he has had.
Moreno, 50, said he had been homeless since he arrived in Wichita in 2001. He recently found an apartment and a job, with some assistance from Catholic Charities’ Supportive Services for Veteran Families program.
“I’m out of the elements, and it feels good,” Moreno said. “It really does.”
Homelessness among veterans has been a nationwide issue for years. In 2009, President Obama announced a goal of ending the problem by 2015.
The number of homeless veterans in Sedgwick County increased about 10 percent from 2013 to 2014, according to the Wichita-Sedgwick County Continuum of Care Coordination. On Jan. 30, 62 homeless veterans were counted, up from 56 last year.
The program at Catholic Charities is an attempt to reduce that number.
“We have veterans who have fought for our country or given the ultimate sacrifice of themselves for our country, and it saddens me to see that they would be homeless,” said program director Erica Davis.
“So it is our commitment to work with them and try to help them find housing.”
Moreno said he came to Wichita from his native San Antonio after his brother died in 2001.
“Everybody remembers 9/11 – I remember 9/10. My brother died on 9/10,” Moreno said. “I got rid of everything I owned and started to travel.”
He rode on Greyhound buses until he encountered trouble: It was around Oklahoma City, he thinks, that his wallet containing his savings was stolen. He did not notice the wallet was gone until he had exited the bus in Wichita.
“Except for the $12 that I had in my pocket, I was completely busted – 100 percent,” Moreno said. “I did not know anybody here in Wichita. There was a foot of snow on the ground, and I’m just in a leather jacket and jeans.”
A member of the Army from 1981 to 1984, he was eligible for homeless programs at the Robert J. Dole Regional VA Medical Center, though he said those programs were not always a perfect fit for him.
“I didn’t see hardly any positives out of the programs that the VA offered,” Moreno said. “That was the first time I actually felt homeless.”
He worked odd jobs over the years – driving trucks, working at carnivals, painting Taco Tico restaurants – but he never had a permanent address, which hurt his potential for long-term employment, he said.
The biggest challenge he faced, he said, was coping with the elements, especially the frigid winters. Moreno said he used to sleep in a variety of places downtown, including a cranny he shared with a few others near the AT&T building on North Broadway.
“I would just look at it like I’m camping,” Moreno said. “At night when you’re sleeping out, you can look up and see the stars. It’s beautiful; granted, I’d rather be seeing the stars through a window.”
Within two months after making contact with a case manager at Catholic Charities, he was in housing and had a job as a baler operator at Value Center, a store dealing in second-hand goods in downtown Wichita.
“It was just a total shock at how much help I got in such a short time – years compared to months,” Moreno said.
He keeps his air-conditioning unit at a cool 62 degrees during the day, though at night, he said, he turns it up to about 72 degrees.
And in his front window, he displays his favorite decal, which in reality is a patch for a jacket. A flag adorns the background and a bald eagle sits in the foreground, accompanied by Moreno’s favorite saying: “The nation which forgets its defenders will itself be forgotten.”
Program aids vets
The program at Catholic Charities began in October, when it received a grant from the Department of Veterans Affairs’ Supportive Services for Veteran Families. The goal: to serve 50 veterans in the charity’s 25-county service area. So far, the program has helped more than 20 veterans, said Davis, the program director.
“Our goal is to really expose our veterans to the resources in their communities,” Davis said. “A lot of it is just listening to them, hearing what their needs are and then connecting them.”
Veterans applying to the program must meet three eligibility criteria, Davis said. They must make less than 50 percent of the area median income, be currently homeless or at risk of becoming homeless and have served on active duty for at least one day.
If a veteran qualifies for the program, Davis said the first step is to develop a housing stabilization plan. Each veteran has different needs, Davis said, so Catholic Charities works closely with other local charities to make sure each person’s needs are met.
“We cannot do it by ourselves,” Davis said. “It is a collaborative effort, working with community partners and the VA.”
Though Catholic Charities is helping Moreno pay the rent on his apartment for now, the goal with all supportive services programs, Davis said, is to give veterans enough assistance for them eventually to live independently.
“It’s a stabilization program,” Davis said. “We’re here to meet the need of a crisis – it’s not meant to be long term.
“It’s definitely a humbling experience and a very hard experience for some of our veterans just to seek services, so we have to be mindful of that when we’re working with them as well.”
The Department of Veteran Affairs, along with Obama, announced in 2009 its intention to end homelessness among veterans by 2015. Between 2010 and 2013, the number of homeless vets had dropped by 18,420, or 24 percent, according to point-in-time estimates by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Melissa Gronau, health care for homeless veterans coordinator at the Robert J. Dole Regional VA Medical Center, said in an e-mail that the slight increase locally can be explained partially because the community is doing a better job of counting the homeless and partially because the “scarcity of employment opportunities that pay a livable wage continues to be major barrier to veterans obtaining permanent housing in this community.”
Davis said veterans struggle with a variety of challenges upon returning to the community: finding stable employment, transferring their military skills to civilian life, possible background challenges or even family illnesses.
“For some veterans, the horrors of war leave them scarred, sometimes leaving them less able to cope with challenges of everyday life,” Gronau said in an e-mail. “In order to end homelessness amongst veterans in our community, a collaborative approach with community partners is vital.”
Gronau said that in the past three years, the VA has provided funding to house 135 veterans in Wichita.
Officials with homeless shelters in the city say developing effective programs to combat the problem is a daunting task.
“It’s complex, there’s no question about it,” said Denny Bender, executive director of the Union Rescue Mission. “The reasons the men we serve find themselves in their current circumstances does not provide a simple solution. Trying to come up with a program that solves all of those causes of homelessness in one fell swoop is nigh unto impossible.”
A report released by the VA in 2012 indicated that mental disorders are the strongest predictor of becoming homeless upon leaving the service. Gronau said up to 70 percent of homeless veterans are affected by substance abuse or mental health disorders.
But not all homeless veterans have mental disorders or addictions – Moreno, for example, said he does not smoke, drink or use any drugs.
“People ask, ‘How can you be a veteran and be homeless?’ ” Moreno said. “I say, ‘It’s not by choice.’
“I didn’t say one day, ‘Oh, man, I’m going to give up my house and home and everything and live on the streets and get sick and not have anything.’ ”
But now when Moreno leaves his job at Value Center every afternoon, he said, he takes pride in telling his co-workers he’s “going home” – and as of Friday, he had a new couch to sleep on.
“Unless you’ve actually been out on the streets, you’re not going to understand what I’m saying,” Moreno said.
“I know when I get off work, I’m going home. It’s not, ‘I’m going to the shelter’ or ‘I’m going to my corner-wide camp.’
“I can safely say, ‘See y’all later, I’m going home.’ ”