Soldiers in Hawaii join in outreach to help homeless veterans

By ALLISON SCHAEFERS | The Honolulu Star-Advertiser | Published: June 12, 2013

HONOLULU — Sgt. 1st Class Maurice Smith, an Army journalist stationed at Fort Shafter, was on a rescue mission Tuesday to save his fallen comrades — the many homeless veterans who call Hawaii streets their home.

"It's tough being on the street," said Smith, who spent two years of his youth homeless in Philadelphia with his single mother and two siblings. "But I remember some people that we encountered were very genuine and sincere in their efforts to help us. Now I'm building it forward."

Smith was one of about 250 active-duty military personnel from U.S. Army Pacific who teamed up with military and homeless service providers to comb Waikiki, Diamond Head, Kakaako Park, Chinatown and Iwilei for homeless vets.

During the one-day mobile outreach, staff from the Waikiki Health Center, US Vets, the West Oahu Vet Center, the Institute for Human Services and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs provided services such as medical and mental screenings, information on veteran benefits, enrollment services and assistance with claims.

While the number of homeless veterans has been declining nationally, it has risen on Oahu in each of the past three years, according to "point-in-time" counts of homeless people on Oahu.

The latest count, conducted Jan. 22, tallied 398 homeless veterans on Oahu. That is 8.4 percent more than in 2012 and 34.5 percent more than in 2010. Homeless veterans accounted for nearly 9 percent of the 4,556 homeless people who were counted across Oahu this year.

"We were surprised to see a little increase," said Darryl Vincent, chief operating officer of US Vets and chairman of Partners in Care — Oahu's Continuum of Care, which oversaw the count, a requirement for getting funding from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. "But it's probably the result of the war winding down and more service members getting out of the military or coming back from duty with issues and falling into homelessness."

Other factors may include that "the cost of living is high here, and I don't believe a lot of veterans, homeless or otherwise, are aware of all the recourses and programs available to them," said Sgt. Maj. Kanessa Trent, a public affairs officer for U.S. Army Pacific.

The outreach team was able to convince about 100 homeless veterans Tuesday to meet with social workers and to get free health care, food and toiletries.

Dave, a 50-year-old homeless veteran who did not want to give his last name due to the stigma attached to homelessness, said he decided to hear what social workers had to say after meeting Smith.

"He can relate. Good for him," Dave said. "It's very special to see a fellow soldier. He makes me proud that I was in the Army, too."

Dave, who has lived on the streets of Waikiki for 15 years, said he's been sober since February and is ready to make a change. But he said he's not optimistic that he'll be able to find a job after a decade of unemployment or that he'll be able to stretch his $290 monthly welfare check far enough to pay rent.

"They'll do the best that they can," he said. "It's really hard finding housing and they don't owe me anything."

Melissa Bowen, a social worker for the Department of Veterans Affairs, said several of the veterans whom she screened Tuesday could qualify for services such as medical care, education, career training, job placement, disability income and housing assistance. "Some of them could get off the street today," Bowen said.

But getting veterans to accept the help that they qualify for can be challenging, she said. "Sometimes they don't want to follow rules, or they prefer to be out doing their own thing," she said.

Smith, the Army journalist, said building trust is an important first step in getting homeless veterans to accept help.

"A lot of people don't want to take help because they don't trust the system," he said. "If they saw combat, that makes it harder for them to trust people, too."

Sgt. Jorge Higuera, another outreach member Tuesday and a soldier who was deployed to Af­ghani­stan for a year, said combat and civilian transitioning can each take a toll on service members.

"I can see why a lot of soldiers have trouble adjusting to the regular civilian population," Higuera said. "I'm mainly out here today to show that just because you take off the uniform, you are not forgotten. You will not be put aside."

Paul Oshiro, manager of the Waikiki Health Center's Care-A-Van, which provides mobile medical and social services, said the soldiers were able to help the center connect with new clients.

"The uniform caught some new eyes," Oshiro said. "They got a young homeless man, who had been in the military for four years and didn't know how to access his benefits, to come to the outreach."

Trent, the Army public relations sergeant major, said she hopes homeless veterans understand that people care and that help is available. Many of the soldiers also have committed to becoming mentors for willing homeless veterans, said Trent, who envisions mentors could help in résumé-writing, transportation to employment interviews or simply talking story.

"We have a saying in the Army, ‘Never leave a fallen comrade,'" she said. "That doesn't just apply to the battlefield. We take it seriously here at home, too."

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