For some veterans, homelessness 'another state of survival'
By COLLIN BREAUX | The News Herald | Published: May 29, 2016
PANAMA CITY, Fla. (Tribune News Service) -- In 1996, Joseph Landry joined the Army. He served almost 20 years, including as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom.
He was honorably discharged in 2005 and went looking for work. He figured as a veteran, he'd have no problem finding a job.
It proved harder than he thought.
"Being on the streets is another state of survival," Landry said. "Being out there draws on your intuition and capabilities."
Landry, originally from Lafayette, Louisiana, found himself like thousands of other military veterans who struggle to readjust to civilian life. Newly released veterans must learn to live independently again. In the military, for example, daily worries such as meals, chores and housing are taken care of. Back in civilian life, veterans must relearn to handle those things on their own, which can be overwhelming.
"Some go back in because they prefer to be back on active duty," Landry said. "You have to pay a landlord and do laundry after you get out.
"We're trained to kill people. That's what a soldier does. When you come out of combat training, how do you settle down?"
Places like the Panama City Rescue Mission (PCRM) try to help answer that question, a relatively new one in that it isn't something people were generally aware of until the decades after the Vietnam War.
"Some military skills don't transition well," said Michael Brust, PCRM's support center supervisor. "How do you take a Marine sniper and transition him into the civilian phase?"
In part, the answer is to provide support. PCRM's support center usually is the first contact guests make with the mission. The center offers services such as employment help and a referral network that provides housing, ID cards, food, counseling, day care, bus tickets and other needs, according to PCRM's website.
The mission helped 356 veterans in 2014, 458 the next year and has aided 210 so far in 2016, Brust said, adding about 20 percent of all people PCRM is working with at any given time are veterans.
It has helped Landry. After periods of homelessness since his 2005 discharge from the Army, Landry in April found himself at PCRM. He said the mission has helped him get back on his feet by giving him a routine and keeping him accountable for his daily actions.
"I get a guided system here," he said. "(Brust) checks my work. In other programs you talk with a counselor for 15 minutes."
One of the first obstacles Landry encountered outside the service was that job applications required an address and phone number. His credit rating also took a hit because he didn't have a home or job.
But despite some of his skills not correlating directly with a civilian life, his military training and resourcefulness did help. When he didn't have a stable home, for example, he used mailbox addresses to satisfy a residency requirement.
In the years since, Landry has been through VA systems in several states. He said PCRM is the best program he's worked with. He said the facility is organized and gives responsibility to the downtrodden by keeping them active with obligations and oversight.
"One of the worst feelings is not knowing what your purpose is," Brust said. "In the military you know what your purpose is."
Mental health is one contributing reason veterans become homeless, said clinical psychologist Stephanie Dutton, the military and addictions services director at Emerald Coast Behavioral Hospital (ECBH).
"There's the labels, like PTSD and chemical dependency, individuals who are even dealing with what people would consider more severe mental health issues, like bipolar disorder or schizophrenia," she said.
Marvin Hughley, ECBH's VA manager, said another contributing cause of veteran homelessness is self-medication with drugs and alcohol. Drug use, in turn, can lead to substance abuse, a change in priority causing intoxication to become more important than food or shelter, perpetuating a cycle of addiction. ECBH is mental health facility that offers treatment programs for active duty military members and veterans.
"We see a mixture of different things," Dutton said. "A lot of individuals, even though we've progressed a long way, I still think there's a fear and lack of understanding. That's where the stigma comes from. ... When people don't get the right treatment, that's part of it."
Having resources available for veterans not only helps them regain their physical and mental health but contributes to keeping them off the street, Dutton said.
Toward that end, making sure they have goals and are not isolated is part of Emerald Coast's treatment program.
Still, "We need more resources in this area," Hughley said. "There's a homeless vet program in Tallahassee. There's a homeless vet program in Pensacola. For the homeless vets in this area, we don't have a designated homeless vet program for them.
"We have patients who come here who are needing those services, (and) we either have to send them to Tallahassee or Pensacola or they try to find the Rescue Mission, and that's only for a few days and they are back in that cycle again."
Landry said even though PCRM has been of assistance to him, it also could use additional services. He suggested the mission find a way to track veterans through a computer system, send help if a veteran is arrested and fund social safety nets.
But the mission's Brust cited a familiar problem nationwide: Funding often gets tied up in red tape on its way through layers of federal, state and local government.
Hughley and Dutton said for some veterans, homelessness becomes the new normal.
But some break the cycle. Hughley recently worked with a veteran in ECBH's treatment program who had been homeless for several years. The vet, who cannot be identified because of medical privacy laws, will have temporary housing with a relative upon being discharged and will seek a more long-term solution at an upcoming meeting with the HUD-Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing program in Tallahassee.
Hughley said many veterans are frustrated by a perceived lack of help from the VA or the community, but he encourages trust and patience.
"HUD-VASH, the homeless programs, it's a process," he said. "And with so many vets being homeless, it boils down to -- it's a waiting list. And in between that time they approve them for a house or bed or whatever the case may be, there's a vet trying to figure out where he's going to sleep at night."
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