Helping homeless veterans, one RV trip at a time
By JEANETTE STEELE | The San Diego Union-Tribune (Tribune News Service) | Published: December 9, 2016
The big RV from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs lumbers up to the curb.
It has made the 75-mile trip from Orange County to spend another Friday morning with San Diego’s homeless veterans, in what’s believed to be a one-of-a-kind VA outreach effort in the nation.
The idea: Hit the streets. Go where the homeless are. Don’t wait for them to find you.
The stage is set. Now the characters arrive.
Bo Gonzales, a retired Marine Corps gunnery sergeant, is the master of ceremonies and the heart of this weekly road show. He organizes the donuts, the plastic urn of coffee, the box of donated clothes — all meant to attract the people his group wants to help.
“Hey, buddy, you want some coffee?” is one of Gonzales’ opening lines. Once the individual has a warm foam cup in hand, Gonzales continues. “Are you a veteran? Do we have you logged in?”
The veteran’s name and Social Security number are noted on Gonzales’ list.
“Are you getting help from the VA?” That question starts a sometimes long back-and-forth between him and the homeless veteran. Usually, both end up sitting in chairs around a folding table.
And that’s the point of this pilot project, which has consumed thousands of gallons of gasoline and similar hours of staff time since it started three years ago.
“One, the RV is a billboard, it’s a visual aide. When people see it, it’s obviously for veterans,” says Gonzales, 46. “Two, it’s to bring non-VA agencies aboard with us and take our services to the veteran population.”
The VA has 70 mobile units assigned to its 300 peer-to-peer counseling Vet Centers nationwide. The rigs were intended to service rural towns.
In Southern California, they usually go to events like resource fairs.
One of Gonzales’ co-workers at the San Marcos Vet Center had the brainstorm to hit the streets, in the middle of the VA’s national campaign to end homelessness among veterans.
“When it comes to homeless outreach, we are the only ones so far utilizing the mobile vet center as dual purpose,” Gonzales said.
“Hopefully, one day, when we have enough substance, we will be able to forward it up to the big VA and use it as a model.”
This fledgling, grassroots effort may or may not take hold nationally, but the whole spectrum of efforts to end homelessness among veterans — federal, state and local — has led to a significant dent in the problem, with San Diego reporting a nearly one-third decline and cities like Houston and New Orleans declaring victory in achieving “functional zero.”
Nationally, more than 78,000 housing vouchers have been issued to struggling veterans through the VA and the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Still, Gonzales marshals his weekly troupe of social workers.
There’s Janelle Johnson, 25, an outreach specialist from Veterans Village of San Diego. With her clipboard, she is here to find homeless veterans who meet the requirements for her housing program.
The program — Supportive Services for Veteran Families, based on grants from the VA — provides a deposit and first month’s rent.
Johnson is a little bit saleswoman, a little bit gatekeeper. She needs to show she is reaching veterans, but not everyone she meets on these Fridays is eligible.
“I engage people and say, ‘What’s your living situation? Are you interested in getting off the street? Are you interested in treatment?” Johnson explains.
“If they say yes, I’ll engage them a little more about how they ended up in this situation. If they are interested, I’ll complete an application for them.”
About one in 10 of the vets she meets on Fridays might be a good fit.
“We could help all 10, but it just depends at what level. Am I going to be helping with what I do — full-time housing — for 10 out of 10? Maybe not. But are we going to be able to direct them to something where they can change the situation a little bit from what they are currently in? Ten out of 10.”
Mario Chiarolanzio, 31, drives the RV down from Orange County, where he works at the Mission Viejo Vet Center.
The RV is also a character in this tableau. The big beast breaks down. The battery dies. It’s hard to park.
“She barely fits in the lines” on the freeway, Chiarolanzio says. “But we make it happen. I had to get it towed last week.”
Tattooed and burly, Chiarolanzio is a recent Army veteran. With him is his support dog, Bandit, a tiny pooch who wears a tough-guy doggie vest with patches and pouches.
“My angle is to just break the ice. Get them to come talk to us. Find out if they are a veteran and find out what resources they are going to need,” Chiarolanzio said.
“We don’t get a 100 percent hit ratio. It’s the same in any mental-health profession,” he said. “But the more exposure we get, the more chance we are going to run into people who are ready to take that step.”
He thinks hitting the road is worthwhile.
“You are more convenient to the person to do the initial contact, he said. “And usually that’s the hardest part, the initial contact.”
Representatives from other VA units and nonprofit groups filter in and out.
The VA’s Veterans Benefits Administration dispatches a worker for RV shifts.
A VA health care worker used to deploy with them, but the rough-and-tumble atmosphere of the street wasn’t a good fit for clinical work.
The team started out three years ago in downtown San Diego’s East Village.
It’s Ground Zero for the city’s street population, the sidewalks packed with homeless encampments.
The RV parks near Park Boulevard, where new condominiums and office buildings are going up alongside people sleeping on the ground.
Reaching homeless vets here isn’t as easy as you would think.
Gonzales’ goal is to log 15 to 20 veterans on his clipboard every Friday morning during the three hours that the outreach unit is deployed. But it doesn’t always work out that way.
Since the program started, his troupe has connected with a modest total of 1,500 homeless veterans.
Many, many more homeless people walk by. But these folks aren’t veterans, or don’t want to admit to it.
Or, they’ve given up.
Just around the corner from the RV unit one Friday was Noel Taylor, a 31-year-old Army veteran who said he’d been homeless only a month.
He came to San Diego from Long Beach to be near his children, following a dispute with his ex-wife.
Taylor claimed he wanted to stop living in a tent. But he wasn’t interested in walking the single block to the RV team to seek services.
“I don’t know if you’ve talked to too many people, but they say they have help and, not to beat around the bush, there’s not as much help as they say there is,” said Taylor, who was skinny and still had the cropped hair of a serviceman.
“I’ve tried all the VA hospitals. I’m an alumni of the Wounded Warrior Project. I’ve tried all that. And my income is too high, or there’s a waiting list, or I have to go to a detox program,” he said, explaining that he gets a VA disability check each month for injuries sustained in uniform.
“It’s hard. It’s not as easy as it seems,” Taylor added, stating frankly that he drinks too much and is bad at handling his money.
There are some success stories.
Francisco Cardona, who was a dental assistant in the Navy, showed up at the RV unit one Friday this summer.
The 34-year-old was neatly dressed in a button-down shirt and khaki pants. But he had seen darker days.
Cardona was homeless in downtown San Diego for several months after he arrived to attend college here. There was some trouble with his bank account, and he ended up on the street.
He survived by eating at shelters until someone suggested that, as a veteran, he could go to the VA hospital in La Jolla. Cardona was admitted there for four months because, he said, he was experiencing anxiety.
Cardona spoke in a low, emotionless voice, and it seemed possible that he had continuing medical issues.
However, he managed to get into a housing program in Chula Vista through December. His goal was to attend Southwestern College in the fall.
His reason for coming back to the RV unit that Friday was to check the status of his request for his military records. He needed them to apply for the GI Bill. His buddy gave him a ride to the RV’s location.
“So far I’m doing good now. My goal is to move out on my own and find a room for rent,” Cardona said.
Data on veterans homelessness offers hope but a mixed picture.
In August, the Obama administration announced that the national count is 40,000 homeless veterans on any given night — more than half of whom reside in shelters.
That’s a nearly 50 percent drop from 2010, the first year of a 5-year VA campaign to house all veterans.
In San Diego, the homeless veterans total is 1,157, based on an annual count in January. That’s a nearly 30 percent decrease from 2011.
So the trends for veterans are positive. But the VA’s goal of “zero” remains unattained — both nationally and in military-friendly San Diego.
Also, while the number of all homeless people in San Diego stayed steady in the 2016 count, the portion that are unsheltered — in other words, living on the streets — shot up by 20 percent.
In downtown San Diego, the RV team began to see the same faces of chronically homeless vets. Gonzales made the choice this summer to branch out.
They tried Balboa Park. Some of Gonzales’ outreach specialists even hiked the park’s brushy hillsides. But they met few veterans.
The mobile outreach program was facing some jeopardy due to low numbers.
Next up: Ocean Beach, near the pier. The RV team had more luck there.
One person who found them there was Patrick O’Connor, a 50-year-old Navy veteran who initially lived in San Diego after his discharge. He returned recently after losing a job on a horse ranch in the Southeast.
O’Connor said he planned to move along to another state soon, but he had been living on Ocean Beach’s streets for two months.
He sat down with the RV team’s housing specialists. Afterward, O’Connor said he was somewhat encouraged, though skeptical about whether this help was a good fit.
“A lot of times, people who are living on the streets just need time to process whatever they are working through,” he said.
In other words, the problem of ending veterans homelessness remains complicated.
For his part, Gonzales plans to continue collecting the donated boxes of Dunkin’ Donuts and Ryan Bros. coffee every Friday.
Visitors to the RV often load up their coffee cups with thick layers of sugar and creamer — it fills an empty stomach, when there’s nothing else, VA workers explained.
“Right now, we’re in a slump,” Gonzales said one Friday in October.
“I’ve been told that homelessness is down, especially among veterans.
But there’s still a percentage out there; I still want to reach out,” the retired Marine gunnery sergeant said.
“They’ve just been pushed out, pushed away — east, west, north and south of downtown,” he said. “I’m still trying to go out and find exactly where they are at.”
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