State urged to help homeless veterans as their ranks grow
Share with others:
HARRISBURG -- Pennsylvania has at least 1,400 military veterans who are homeless due to drug abuse, lack of job skills, post-traumatic stress disorder and other problems, federal officials say.
Harry Barnes of Harrisburg was one of them. Mr. Barnes (no relation to the reporter), an ex-Army artillery and explosives expert, told a Senate veterans panel his story about years of being without a job and a permanent place to stay, due to drug abuse.
"I was homeless, off and on, for 20 years," he said. He called it "an animalistic lifestyle." Many times, he said, "I just wanted to give up." Looking back on it now, he says, 'What was I thinking?' "
The Veterans Affairs Committee chairwoman, Sen. Lisa Baker, R-Luzerne, held the recent hearing as a way to encourage the state to do more to help people who have risked their lives for their country.
"Our obligations to Pennsylvania's veterans do not come with an expiration date or an opt-out clause when state revenues falter," she said.
She and other state officials fear the number of homeless veterans could grow as more of them return from Iraq, Afghanistan and areas around the nation and world.
"This is not a problem restricted to Pennsylvania. It is a nationwide problem," said Timothy Cleveland of the State Association of County Directors of Veterans Affairs.
The federal government this year made a $939 million commitment to reduce homelessness among vets. The National Guard and veterans groups also are getting involved, said William Reed, a retired Navy officer working on homelessness in five counties around Harrisburg. The attention and dollars seem to be having a positive effect.
The estimated number of homeless vets in the United States is about 67,000, down from 76,000 estimated in 2010, said Mr. Reed, who works for the Homeless Veterans Reintegration Program run by the Harrisburg YWCA.
But he said that while there has been progress in helping male vets get skills, jobs and places to live, "reported homelessness among female veterans and veterans with families is on the rise.''
Mr. Barnes, who just turned 50, grew up in North Philadelphia and served in the military from 1982 to 1985 at bases in Seattle and Hawaii. In an interview last week, he said his time in the Army was "a tremendous experience."
But he decided not to re-enlist and returned to Philadelphia, and that's where the trouble started -- with illegal drugs.
"Illegal drugs were rampant and the job market was tough when I returned to Philly," he said. "I didn't really know what to do when I got back home. I fell into that drug trend. I fell back to the streets. Five or maybe 10 years went by. Time was hard to recall back then."
He did find some help in the mid-1990s at a drug rehab clinic in Coatesville outside the city. It provided some "structure and stability in my life," and he found homeless shelters to stay in.
But he returned to Philadelphia and relapsed, and it wasn't until 2006 -- when a friend told him about a new program at the YWCA in Harrisburg -- that his life really began turning around. "I had a friend in Harrisburg, who said he'd found a new way to live" off the streets, he said.
The Y had just begun a Homeless Veterans Reintegration Program for both men and women, with aid from state agencies for labor and veterans affairs. It now serves more than 100 single homeless vets.
The Y recognized that a considerable number of returning female vets -- in addition to the drug, post-traumatic stress, schooling and jobless problems that male vets faced -- were also suffering mental and physical trauma from sexual harassment or assaults while in the military.
Women make up about 15 percent of those on active duty and in the National Guard and almost 20 percent of reservists, said Mr. Reed, who'd just retired after 26 years in the Navy.
Since most counselors helping homeless vets are male, Mr. Reed said, "women who experienced military sexual trauma may be unwilling or unable to share concerns, including PTSD, with individuals untrained in these sensibilities." In addition, they may not have someone to care for their children so that they can get services.
Ms. Baker said the state and federal governments must pay more attention to the problems of returning vets, since their numbers are likely to increase.
"We are glad to have Pennsylvanians back from Iraq," she said, "and anticipate the day when our forces come home from Afghanistan." But the harsh reality is that the influx of returning veterans will further strain services provided by the state, church and nonprofit agencies.
Mr. Barnes said people like Mr. Reed are vital for veterans who need an apartment and a job. He calls Mr. Reed his "mentor" and added, "I believe God crossed our paths."
At first Mr. Barnes was able to stay at Bethesda Mission, a well-known Harrisburg shelter for homeless men to get meals and temporary shelter. The Y program taught him job skills, basic education and, perhaps most of all, to have faith in himself.
"They don't let you give up on yourself," he said.
Mr. Barnes eventually landed a job with the Naval Supply Depot in suburban Harrisburg, and operates a forklift, loading equipment for shipment to Navy bases around the world. He has an apartment in Harrisburg and a car.
But it's a continuing battle against the self-destructive demons that had him on the street for so many years, he added. He was greatly saddened by the recent death of singer Whitney Houston, who had a history of substance abuse. "I guess she didn't know how to address the problem," he said.
Ms. Baker said Mr. Barnes deserves a lot of credit for taking his life back. "You've come a long way," she said.
He replied, "Well, it takes a lot of work to lead a sober life. It's a day-to-day fight."
First Published February 19, 2012 12:00 am