D.C. veterans say so long to homelessness, with a little help from a rock star
By TARA BAHRAMPOUR | The Washington Post | Published: November 11, 2019
WASHINGTON — Clifton Braxton sat in his Buick Encore in the parking lot of VA Medical Center last week and showed how he could transform the vehicle into a bedroom. An Air Force veteran who served during the Vietnam War, he struggled with substance abuse for many years and has been homeless off and on for a quarter-century. Each night he parks in a different lot in the District of Columbia or Maryland.
He eased the driver's seat into its most extended position. "I go right down here and drop it back," he said, stretching his nearly 5-foot-9 frame semi-horizontally. But Braxton, 72, had to admit that the two blankets in the back seat would be thin comfort against the coming winter. "It's gone get colder," he said with a knowing smile.
Across the Anacostia River, Latisha Austin, 29, pulled a blanket taut across her single bed at the U.S. Veterans Initiative in Washington, a temporary housing facility where she has lived for nearly a year.
The Army National Guard veteran and aspiring singer-songwriter became homeless in 2017 after her roommates and boyfriend stopped paying rent on their shared space. She couch-surfed and stayed in abandoned houses before moving into the veterans facility, where residents live in shared suites, must present for a nightly roll call, and are not allowed to bring food or drinks into their rooms.
Austin said she longed to "go back to being a grown adult again," adding: "I really like to bake."
Austin and Braxton have been approved to move into a new permanent housing complex for homeless veterans in an updated building on the former Walter Reed hospital campus in Washington. Soon, the certificate of occupancy for the facility will be issued and they will be free to move in.
Known as the Walter Reed Veteran Apartments, the complex will house 77 single people in efficiency units and provide services for vocational training, job placement, substance abuse, psychiatric issues, physical health, family relationships and legal concerns. The vets range in age from their 20s to their 70s, and many have served in conflicts from Vietnam to Afghanistan.
The $13 million facility, paid for by public and private funding, is operated by HELP USA, which runs permanent supportive housing programs across the country. This is its first project in the Washington area; it also operates 75 units of homeless veteran housing on the Perry Point VA Campus in Cecil County, Maryland. That campus opened last year.
The Walter Reed facility includes common areas such as a lounge with a fireplace, to help foster a sense of community among residents.
"You tend to find social isolation in veterans coming off the streets," said David Cleghorn, HELP USA's chief housing officer, adding that after getting into permanent housing, formerly homeless veterans will often "close the door, lock it, and never come back out again, because there's a survival mode they get into. . . . We try to develop spaces in the building that will encourage veterans to spend time together."
The Department of Housing and Urban Development's most recently released report on the number of homeless veterans found just over 37,800 in January 2018, down nearly 50 percent since 2010.
Rents in the Washington area have made it harder for lower-income people, including veterans, to find housing. Montgomery County, Maryland, and the commonwealth of Virginia both announced in 2015 that they had eliminated homelessness among veterans. A little over 300 homeless veterans are estimated to live in D.C., and so far about 30 have been approved to move into the new facility.
To qualify, they must make 50 percent or less of the area median income. They will pay 30 percent of their income in rent, whether that comes from Social Security, disability, pensions or wages from a job.
A few weeks ago, Braxton and Austin visited the facility and met rocker Jon Bon Jovi, whose Jon Bon Jovi Soul Foundation, the project's lead private funder, provided a $525,000 grant. Bon Jovi has not served in the military, but his parents were Marines.
"Service was always a part of who I was," he said in an interview with The Washington Post. At 21, he said, he was focused on making it in the music industry, but as he got older, he began to think more about the broader world. He recalled seeing a homeless man sleeping on a grate outside Philadelphia's City Hall. "I thought, 'This wasn't what our forefathers were thinking,' " said Bon Jovi, now 57.
His 13-year-old foundation has helped fund more than 700 units of housing in 11 states, along with two restaurants where payment is made by donation. Bon Jovi recently wrote a song from the perspective of a veteran struggling with postwar trauma; it is featured in a documentary that premiered this month about veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder and their service dogs.
Braxton, Austin and Bon Jovi toured the site, which includes a small gym, a courtyard and a computer room. Inside one of the apartments, they marveled at the pristine kitchen utensils, appliances and furniture.
"Those are brand new beds; those are not used beds," Braxton said. "If I do my part, I can't be told: 'You've got to leave.' They're not going to tear this place down. You're going to have electricity, you're going to have water, you're going to have a protected environment. I can close my door — boom — that's going to be my place."
Austin used her phone to take selfies with Bon Jovi, then turned on the video to capture footage of the room. "It just feels so clean," she said. "I won't have to worry about a roof over my head; I can focus on music. . . . I have so much to write about; I can write so many hit songs."
Eyes shining, she hurried down the second-floor hall. "This is my first time being on the floor that I'm actually going to be on," she said. "Ooh! Getting closer! I'm about to be there!" She stopped in front of a locked door. "This is my room." She hugged the door.
Austin is ready for the call telling her it is time to move in. Her suitcase is waiting in the middle of her current room. "I'll be able to pack everything — I can pack really fast," she said.
For now, she has the images on her phone. "I always go back to that video whenever I'm feeling impatient," she said.