Guiding vets forward after life on the streets
By Martin Kuz | San Antonio Express-News (Tribune News Service) | Published: March 20, 2016
Ivory Smith stood in his kitchen unpacking a box of groceries when he turned at the sound of Andy Guerra snapping his fingers.
"Can opener," Guerra said, pointing at Smith, whose almost barren cupboards had begun to fill. "You don't have one, do you?"
Smith smiled as he took aim with a verbal jab.
"So you brought over a bunch of canned stuff but no can opener?" he said. "Man, that's like giving a soldier a rifle without giving him bullets."
Both men laughed, and Guerra promised to drop one off later that day. For Smith, an Army veteran, the lapse rated as less than minor, considering that a week earlier he had been homeless.
The swift change in his fortunes occurred with the help of Guerra, who oversees an innovative program for the nonprofit Family Endeavors that has fortified San Antonio's campaign to house its population of homeless veterans.
Guerra and the three members of his so-called navigator team combine the roles of outreach specialist, peer mentor and case manager. True to their title, the navigators seek to guide veterans living on the streets or in shelters into a place of their own, and then, over time, toward self-reliance.
The approach treats housing as the start of their reintegration rather than the endpoint. The navigators assist veterans in pursuing a new future by connecting them to drug and alcohol treatment, mental health counseling, medical care, job training and other supportive services.
Guerra and his team act as benevolent shadows, talking with the veterans almost daily by phone or in person. The navigators ask how therapy is coming along, provide reminders about upcoming doctor's visits, offer rides to food banks. Their steady presence reassures the veterans as they attempt to begin again.
"Once you get them housed, the hard work really starts," said Guerra, a former longtime emergency medical worker who spent five years in the Army Reserve. "A lot of these guys have addiction problems or mental health issues, some have criminal backgrounds. They don't trust the social services system. So we walk with them and make sure they know someone has their back."
The city's efforts to move homeless veterans into permanent housing received a lift in January when USAA donated $2.1 million to the cause. The funding went to three groups -- Family Endeavors, the American GI Forum and the South Alamo Regional Alliance for the Homeless -- that collaborate to house and rehabilitate former service members whose lives have imploded.
The grant so far has enabled 60 veterans to move into apartments in 14 complexes citywide, with most paying a modest percentage of their monthly rent and utilities based on income or disability benefits.
Another 70 veterans are enrolled in the program.
San Antonio has found housing for more than 800 homeless veterans since January last year, when Mayor Ivy Taylor announced the city would join a nationwide initiative to end veteran homelessness.
A city analysis at the time estimated 850 to 1,000 homeless veterans lived here. Taylor has set a March 31 deadline to bring the count to "functional zero," and she's expected to discuss the topic at her State of the City address Tuesday.
San Antonio would join Houston, New Orleans, Phoenix and a dozen other cities that have reached the threshold since 2014.
Smith has benefited from the city's push. He had couch-surfed with friends and stayed at Haven for Hope, the downtown homeless shelter, before landing in a substance abuse program in January.
An unhealthy love of Bud Ice and a series of physical ailments, including a mild heart attack and two compressed discs in his back, derailed his life.
"You lose sight of who you are when you're homeless because everything is a struggle every day," said Smith, 55, whose six-year military career ended in 1984. "But it's up to you to make it better."
Guerra sensed Smith's desire to change. They met in February after Smith's discharge from treatment, and he vowed to Guerra that he would remain sober and return to work at The Cove, where he handles odd jobs. A week later, he moved into his apartment.
Smith praised the navigator team for creating stability in his time of uncertainty, even if Guerra forgot the can opener that morning.
"You don't have to wonder when they're going to be there because they're always there," said Smith, whose thick arms and rough hands testify to decades of blue-collar work. "That gives you peace of mind."
Smith covers $130 of the $615 rent for his one-bedroom unit in Escondido Village, a sprawling complex behind Northstar Mall. The maze of buildings, if unfit for Stone Oak, calls to mind that upscale enclave for someone who has languished in a homeless shelter.
"It's quiet. It's like a rich people's neighborhood," he said. "You can't say nothing but it's wonderful."
'Out of the dark'
A middle-aged man wearing a camouflage jacket and blue Air Force cap sat outside a bagel shop near Oak Hills Country Club. Guerra eased into a parking spot and approached him.
The man gave his name as Russell Wright, and from his battered wallet, he pulled a Veterans Affairs health care card with his photo on it. At age 56, he appeared a decade older, his face creased and pallid, his heavy-lidded eyes a tired blue.
Wright served four years in the Air Force in the 1980s, and he told Guerra and another navigator, Teresa Estrada, that he lost a good-paying manufacturing job a couple of years ago. He has since drifted between budget motels and the streets, sleeping in alleys and behind garbage bins.
He lives on $700 in Social Security disability benefits and $81 in food stamps, a monthly budget that prevents him from obtaining enough medication to fully control his high blood pressure, neuropathy and depression.
Sitting across from Wright at a wrought-iron table, Guerra wore a black cap with the words United States Army Combat Medic stitched across the front. His tone solicitous, he told Wright that he could place him in an apartment within a week.
"I got to get off the street!" Wright said, spiking his words with an expletive as he slapped the table. He sounded more desperate than angry, and after pausing to calm himself, his voice softened.
"I'm not trying to be rude. But my God, if I can get out of the elements -- it's killing me."
The navigators work with an urgency rooted in that anguished sentiment. They recognize that, for those living on the margins, each day feels less like a gift than a threat.
"We deal with life-or-death situations," said Estrada, who confronted such high-stakes scenarios in her past job as an investigator with Child Protective Services. She felt optimistic that the navigators soon could move Wright off the streets.
"These veterans have been in very dark places, and they don't want to go back," she said. "We try to keep them out of the dark."
The navigators make first contact with most veterans during visits to Haven for Hope. The dozens of former service members there reveal the depth of need.
The conversations serve as a two-way appraisal.
The navigators assess the willingness of veterans to reassert control over their lives. The veterans gauge whether the navigators will deliver on their word.
Michael Niño, a navigator who deployed twice to Iraq with the Marines, recalled a veteran at Haven who waited a month before talking with him. On the day he introduced himself, the man said: "I can tell you're the real deal."
When Niño asked how he knew, the veteran replied: "Because you keep showing up."
The navigators anticipate the skepticism. They understand the social services network can prove unreliable. They also realize addiction and mental illness -- two of the primary causes of homelessness -- can knock veterans out of the system's orbit.
Guerra and his team maintain contact with both sides. The navigators ensure social service agencies track the veterans, and they shepherd the veterans to the proper case managers, review paperwork and, if necessary, drive them to meetings.
"When a veteran is going from one organization to another for services, sometimes they slip into the gaps," said Bobby Ehring, a program manager for Family Endeavors and an Iraq War veteran. "The navigators help them so they don't end up feeling abandoned."
Charles Zajicek forged a rapport with the navigators when the Navy veteran encountered them at Haven last month. He suffers from depression, hepatitis C and high blood pressure, and a few years ago, his health problems cost him work as an air conditioning technician.
He had lived off and on at the shelter since then, sleeping outside in a concrete courtyard among hundreds of others, and his faith in social services had withered until he met Guerra and Estrada. Last month, he moved into an apartment at Escondido Village, and given the space to exhale, he has regained a sense of possibility.
"People think Haven is where we want to stay. No," said Zajicek, 59, who grew up in San Antonio. The navigators "don't make you jump through 99 million hoops. They got me signed up and I was in an apartment in six, seven days."
For the navigators, cultivating pride and motivation lies at the heart of their mission.
"You have to make them feel secure," Niño said. "But you also don't want to do too much for them. You want to help them rediscover their purpose."
On a recent afternoon, Estrada drove Zajicek and two other veterans to a food bank at Coker United Methodist Church. He carried a George R.R. Martin novel, and as he waited his turn, he spoke of a simple ambition.
"I need to get a job," he said, rubbing his hand across a forearm shaded blue and green by an elaborate sleeve tattoo. "I'll do anything: pick up trash, clean warehouses, whatever. Then I'll start feeling like I'm getting somewhere."
The navigators refer veterans to organizations that assist with the job search and prepare them for interviews. Estrada had heard earlier from another veteran who told her he found work driving for Uber. She smiled at the news.
"All of us need another opportunity," she said. "I'm no different. I'm a colon cancer survivor, and I got a lot of support from a lot of people. Without that, I might be in the same position as these guys."
Robert Gressett spotted Tommy Riester sitting on his walker outside his apartment at Escondido Village. The two Navy veterans met at Haven for Hope, and Gressett, who lives in a nearby unit, ambled over to chat.
He asked whether Riester had received the donated furniture allotted to each veteran in the USAA housing program. When Riester told him the items, including a bed, would arrive in a couple of days, Gressett offered him a spare air mattress. Riester thanked him, and Gressett went home to grab it.
The navigators steered both men and a handful of other veterans from Haven into the apartment complex last month. Now living in separate spaces instead of together in the shelter's courtyard, the men remain close, checking on one another throughout the day, a solidarity born of their military background.
"We're doing the same thing here that we did at Haven," said Riester, 48, who served in a naval construction battalion from 1985 to 1994. A .32-caliber bullet dangled from his pierced left ear. "It gives you a sense of security to know the other guys are around."
Riester has endured numerous surgeries on his legs, back and abdomen, and he has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder linked to his military service. He skidded off the grid last year after his third divorce and his discharge from the city's VA hospital, where he had attended PTSD counseling.
The USAA program covers rent for six months. The ticking clock propels navigators to help the veterans find other means of support through employment, Social Security, VA and GI Bill benefits, and low-income housing programs.
Riester collects $773 a month in Social Security disability benefits and pays none of the $680 rent for his one-bedroom apartment. He is working with the navigators to obtain VA benefits and a federal housing voucher that would cover his rent beyond the existing lease.
"Now that I have a place, I don't want to lose it," he said. "I don't want to end up outside again."
Officials in New Orleans, Phoenix and other cities that have eliminated veteran homelessness ascribe much of the success to navigators for keeping veterans off the streets once they're housed. San Antonio's efforts to sustain the progress of the last 15 months will rely on the navigator program and assorted public resources that the city has harnessed to aid homeless veterans.
"If the veterans end up back on the streets in six months, that doesn't help anyone," said Melody Woosley, director of the city's Department of Human Services. "So the navigators and the programs we've put in place will continue to be a top priority for us."
Gressett, 45, intends to avoid plunging into the abyss again. He landed at Haven for Hope in 2010 following a seven-year prison stint for robbery and assault.
The Navy veteran, discharged in 1997 after a four-year career, struggles with bipolar disorder, neuropathy and rheumatoid arthritis. Moving into an apartment last month represented his first break since leaving prison.
As the navigators guide him through the bureaucratic thicket to apply for Social Security disability benefits, he aspires to serve as a peer mentor to homeless veterans.
Reaching that career path could take some years. Yet Gressett believes the strength he and his fellow veterans draw from one another has proven the worth of peer support.
"We helped each other at Haven, and now we have our own apartments," he said, smoking as he sat on a wall outside his building. "If we keep helping each other to change, then maybe one day we got a shot to all have our lives again."
He flicked away his cigarette. "At least now there's hope," he said. Then he stood up and walked into his home.
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