Group helps Vietnam vet find new life on the Gulf Coast


By ANITA LEE | The SunHerald | Associated Press | Published: December 7, 2019

BILOXI, Miss. — His mobile home was rotting around him and Johnny C. Owens had no money for repairs.

The Vietnam veteran had been living alone for eight years in the woods of South Alabama. Although he was no longer drinking, his old enemy depression had beaten him down.

Suicide seemed like the only way out. A couple of friends had killed themselves, but he didn't want to leave a mess in his bedroom like one of them did. So he practiced outdoors with his shotgun.

Then one day, he picked up a card that had been laying around. It was for a veterans' crisis line. He called.

The crisis line connected him with services offered through the Gulf Coast Veterans Healthcare System, which stretches from Hancock County to Panama City, Fla.

The VA determined Owens was essentially homeless. Before long, two men from the nonprofit group Soldier On showed up at his trailer, packed up his belongings and moved him to an apartment in Biloxi, where he has lived for five years.

"I started on my way up," said Owens, 77. "I'm doing good now. I've got some good people around me."

The safety net that caught Owens has for four years in a row housed every homeless veteran who wanted a home. The homeless rate for Coast veterans is "functional zero," a standard few communities in the United States have achieved.

It means South Mississippi has enough beds available for homeless veterans who want them.

This has been no small feat. In its first year of success, 2015, the veterans program housed 276 veterans. Success followed each year, with 147 veterans housed in 2018. With fewer veterans to house, the VA has more time to spend on prevention.

"If somebody is a veteran who is homeless, it is his decision to be homeless," said Judy Hearn Cottrell, who has worked with the homeless for 10 years, most recently as pastoral director of Seashore Mission in Biloxi. "I don't see any veterans on the street who are homeless unless they elect to be."

Further, the employment rate for veterans in supportive housing who can work was 90.83 percent for fiscal year 2018-19, the second highest in the nation.

The VA has achieved its success by working with community partners through the Open Doors Homeless Coalition, a nonprofit organization based in Gulfport that has more than 50 member agencies focused on a variety of services.

Under Executive Director Mary Simons, the ODHC is focused on ending homelessness not just for veterans but for all of South Mississippi.

"What we have found was that there were lots and lots of people, veterans included, falling through the cracks because the assistance was siloed," Simons said. "What we noticed was, if we were going to end anything, we needed to know what we were ending.

"We needed to know all the services being provided. We needed to break down those silos. Now, we couldn't imagine any other way of doing it or how we would manage without these partnerships."

The ODHC works off a database of the homeless, built through surveys that member organizations began conducting in 2015 while counting the homeless population annually through the U.S. Housing and Urban Development's Point in Time count.

The survey specifically asked about veteran status, health-related problems, services needed and other issues so that respondents could be linked to available community services.

Veterans were a priority, but the ODHC and its members are applying lessons learned to the larger homeless population.

Performance measures show 96 percent of Gulf Coast service area veterans stay in a home while enrolled in the supportive housing program. Two years after discharge, only 10 percent return to homelessness, Simons said.

"We are one of the few communities that has sustained an end to veteran homelessness," she said, "and that is a result of the community partners doing this work."

" . . . We certainly don't want to leave anyone behind. The lessons we're learning from an end to veteran homelessness we're applying to other things."

Owens isn't flourishing only because he secured an apartment through the partnership between the VA and HUD, which supplies housing vouchers that help qualified applicants with rent. A support system surrounded him and continues to be there for him.

The VA's supportive housing program provides case management based on an individual's needs, including licensed clinical social workers, registered nurses, budgeting classes, peer support specialists, and drug and alcohol rehabilitation.

Community partners working with the VA include ODHC members Back Bay Mission in Biloxi, the Hancock County Resource Center and Oak Arbor based in Hattiesburg.

Veterans in the HUD-Veterans Assistance Supportive Housing program go through phases of case management, said Jodie Picciano-Swanson, Homeless Program manager for the Gulf Coast VA.

The veterans start with a two-week orientation that teaches them everything from getting along with neighbors to managing their money. Some veterans have no income when they enter the program.

The VA works with them to find and enroll for any benefits to which they might be entitled, including Social Security and service-connected benefits such as health care.

The assistance he received, and the friends he's met along the way, have made all the difference for Owens.

He had previously cycled through drug and alcohol rehabilitation and psychiatric units.

Owens said his problems seemed to start as soon as he stepped off the airplane in 1964 on his return from 14 months' service in the Air Force as a member of the First Communications Group during the Vietnam War.

He doesn't think of himself as a hero, not at all. Instead, he said, he gives all the credit to those who were engaged directly in combat.

"I just felt guilty," he said. "Why should I be back and not them?"

During the war, he discovered alcohol and drugs, which were cheap and plentiful. He continued to drink when he returned home. He worked for less than two years at Keesler, where he taught math, electronics and communications.

His family came with him, but the drinking eventually chased off his wife and two children. After an honorable discharge, he wound up homeless and without work. He said he rode freight trains all over the country.

His family in Alabama didn't want him around and he didn't want to be around them, either. He eventually settled in that trailer in the woods.

His depression became unmanageable after both his parents died, he said.

"I just didn't care about life anymore," he said. "Depression got me good. That depression is fierce."

His apartment and supportive services saved him. He has made friends through the VA and still attends a veterans support group weekly. He also has friends and neighbors in his Biloxi apartment complex off Pass Road.

They share meals and good times. And he's back on speaking terms with his family, proudly displaying pictures of their get togethers in his apartment.

He loves to cook and enjoys reading about astrophysics, theoretical physics, astronomy and philosophy.

"I've got some special people around me," he said. "Oh, man!"