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2 Army veterans take on the homeless issue in San Diego

By JEANETTE STEELE | The San Diego Union-Tribune | Published: October 4, 2017

SAN DIEGO (Tribune News Service) — Peter Tancredi points to the image of three smiling young military veterans on the wall.

“That’s who we thought we’d be helping,” said Tancredi, a retired military hospital administrator, chuckling at the memory.

Instead, Peter and Susan Tancredi had to give themselves a crash course in homeless programs.

The couple, both retired Army officers, are volunteers at the San Diego Central Library veterans resource center. On Thursday afternoons, they are the smiling faces waiting at the assigned third-floor cubbyhole, just past the elevators at the massive lattice-domed downtown library.

The Mission Valley and Point Loma library branches house these resource centers, too, thanks to state and federal grants. So do libraries in Chula Vista and Oceanside.

But with the city’s homeless crisis concentrated in downtown San Diego, nearly all the vets who seek help at the Central Library are from the streets.

So the Tancredis have had the unique experience of trying to navigate the region’s many homeless agencies on behalf of their “clients” — without any special training in social work.

It has been an eye-opening education in how complicated the process can be — even if you have, as they do, a professional background, a computer, a telephone, voicemail and the dogged determination that comes from a military career.

“The frustrating thing is, it’s very difficult to find a person who can help them. And also usually it is, ‘Please listen because our options have changed,’ and then you leave a voicemail,” Peter Tancredi said. “There are so many voicemails. And most of the (social agency) folks that we deal with are overworked. They are stressed to the max.”

Meanwhile, the Tancredis know their odds of getting through are better than that of the average veteran on the street.

“Some of these people, especially with PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) and any other issues they have, do not have the patience, do not have the follow-through to call a number, much less be patient to be put on hold,” said Susan Tancredi, a career Army nurse before retiring.

The downtown center opened in early 2015. It is one of the state’s busiest, in terms of visitor volume, helping 30 veterans per month on average.

But the Tancredis are the only volunteers at present.

Library officials would like to see more, so the center could open more days and hours. They particularly need volunteers who are veterans, who may have first-hand practice navigating the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

It’s not exactly what you’d think a public library’s mission would include.

“It’s not just about checking out books anymore,” said Gary Klockenga, manager of the government documents and periodicals collection at the Central Library. “We are close to where homeless people are, they are living on the streets near us. They come to us for other things, so this is a way to get our foot in the door” to help them.

An estimated 1,054 veterans are homeless in San Diego County, according to the yearly count in January. That’s about 12 percent of the overall homeless population.

The picture used to be worse for vets. A national VA campaign has led to a 29 percent decrease in the homeless veteran population in San Diego County since 2013.

But challenges remain, especially as veterans age. Nearly half of the county’s unsheltered homeless vets served in the window after Vietnam and before the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts.

One recent client at the library was Anthony Graham, a 54-year-old Marine Corps veteran who is nearly blind and uses a service dog.

He moved to San Diego from Colorado in August to escape the coming winter, when snow and a bad hip limit his ability to move around outside.

Anthony has no housing and is staying Father Joe’s Villages center downtown. He came to the library for another reason, and the lobby security guard suggested the third-floor veterans resource center.

Anthony’s problem on that particular Thursday: In an effort to get housing and benefits here, he’d scheduled conflicting appointments and didn’t have the phone numbers to untangle them. Anthony laid a clump of paperwork and business cards in front of Susan Tancredi.

“It might be somewhere in there,” he told her.

The retired Army nurse carefully picked through the pile. She started making calls.

“I’m a volunteer at the veterans resource center at the Central Library, and I’m trying to help a homeless veteran. He’s been working with a person by the name of … ,” Tancredi started out, in a smooth, business-like voice.

Four calls later, she found the correct person, and Anthony straightened out his conflicting appointments.

It was a small victory in that three-hour shift for the married volunteers.

But there was one day, a New Year’s Eve, when they made a life-or-death impact. A veteran arrived at the library that Thursday afternoon, frustrated. He had come to San Diego from El Centro to seek a second medical opinion at the VA hospital here.

On the line was the possible amputation of his leg. The Tancredis helped him figure out how to get access. That veteran came back a few months later to thank them. He had been so frustrated, he told them, that he had been considering suicide that New Year’s Eve.

“He said he was ready to kill himself that evening, if we hadn’t helped him,” Peter Tancredi said.

“We did honestly make a difference in someone’s life,” Susan Tancredi said.

For information about volunteering at the San Diego Public Library, go here or email libraryvolunteer@sandiego.gov.

jen.steele@sduniontribune.com

©2017 The San Diego Union-Tribune
Visit The San Diego Union-Tribune at www.sandiegouniontribune.com
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

San Diego Police officers sweep an area off Commercial Street in San Diego on Sept. 19, 2017.
JOHN GASTALDO/ZUMA PRESS/TNS

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