On reports based on experience, it is easy to assume the reader cares most to have a simplistic and unchallenging read along with a comparison to relevance and the public perspective. While this methodology is the most collegiate and often an unoriginal construct; this multi-part report will tell the story from perceptive and then best attempt to explain what has transpired. This methodology is by no means intended to be degrading to those who were involved. While in fact those who have assisted me in the field have been clever and enlightening as their wisdom, and theories have provided me with new insight on previously held purpose-assumptions.
The objective of this report is to provide real-life experience, insights, and physically driven concepts versus a mode, means, method per incident report. As we find that understanding the topic and understanding the event do not always meet; nor do these things always fully understand each other in such abstract settings.
Homeless Veteran Demographics
- 13% of the homeless adult population are veterans.
- 20% of the male homeless population are veterans.
- 68% reside in principal cities.
- 32% reside in suburban/rural areas.
- 51% of individual homeless veterans have disabilities.
- 50% have serious mental illness.
- 70% have substance abuse problems.
- 51% are white males, compared to 38% of non-veteran.
- 50% are age 51 or older, compared to 19% non-veterans.
Make a Tentative Plan
This experience as a homeless veteran when it was initially outlined, and discussed in concept, was an expansion on a course experience from my undergraduate program. A few years ago, and for a weekend, my class slept at a homeless shelter and lived the homeless life in four-person coed teams. From there we navigated as minimalists, and without technology around the city to the various agencies which offer help to the homeless; from showers to employment. Also in addition to finding our way through the mix of it in the city, we were also given several challenges, such as; to successfully ask for money from passing strangers – to know that dis-prideful feeling. We were also to navigate on foot to a point six miles away from the city center and obtain an employment application – while wearing donated clothes that we had two minutes to pull out of a pile of random attire. We were then to return and continue onto an assortment of other tasks. That’s not much for a soldier, but my unworldly classmates were given a headfirst look at some of the realities of life, which they only knew in passing. The learning objective of the course was for us to understand the variances in class, culture, community, demographics, minority, and society. We leaped from the book, into reality, and back.
Classroom to Reality
It is from that undergraduate course that I outlined my plan to return, and where I initially established the contacts to make this happen. My motivation to return was heavily reliant on the amount of veterans that I encountered on the streets during that first experience. They ranged from a few from the Vietnam era, many from the 1980’s and 1990’s as veterans of; Grenada, Panama, the Gulf War, and Bosnia to an ever increasing number of Afghanistan and Iraq veterans. My “ask” for this, and for them, was a test of the system and one’s character.
The challenge reached out and questioned not who was worthy, but if I would dare dive back into that dark pool of homeless culture to discover something I had previously missed. It was a challenge that I would struggle with as I was able to dismiss many of the homeless quickly and just as well the homeless veterans. An overwhelming majority of many of their issues are a result of substance abuse, which is not a fault of society or the system – but the consequences of the choices of an individual.
Presence of mental disorders (substance-related disorders and/or mental illness) is the strongest predictor of becoming homeless after discharge from active duty.
Nearly half or more (ranging from 48 percent for OEF/OIF men to 67 percent for non-OEF/OIF women) of the newly homeless veterans were diagnosed with some mental disorders prior to discharge from active duty; the rate of diagnosed mental disorders among newly homeless veterans increased to 64–76 percent before becoming homeless. –NCHV
Even so, a few of the homeless veterans particularly stuck out in my mind after my first experience Their issues were not from nor were any symptoms present to suggest that substance abuse was a factor in their lives. Those few homeless veterans demonstrated an extreme anti-social way of life, some of it was from a possible mental illness, or psychological disorder, but what their actions indeed manifested were learned behaviors and distancing strategies. They just wanted to be left alone to go about life as they choose to, which is not an uncommon practice for veterans of the current wars. Yet, I took an on-going keen interest in all of them, and I wanted to return, but this time without the university over my shoulder. I wanted to go alone.
Better Call Saul
Saul, the Shelter Coordinator asked me to keep his real name, the name of the shelter, and as many details anonymous as possible for the article. That’s because Saul had asked on my behalf for permission from the oversight committee to be permitted to report on homeless veterans via the shelter, and the committee outright rejected the idea. Although, Saul is a lot like me, and doesn’t give a damn about such rulings when a plan to bypass such bureaucratic nonsense can be devised. Granted that the anonymity factor does take quite a bit away from the human element in this report.
Despite the limitations, we both agreed that there is not enough realistic reporting on the homeless, and especially for homeless veterans. We also saw an opportunity in the predicament, since I was not allowed to be the standard journalist, walking around with a camera and asking questions. I would have to be discrete and what better way to be discrete than to belong there and as a homeless veteran.
It was mid-week when I made my way on foot for the evening check-in time as the city shelter. I had put on an old battalion t-shirt that I had used while painting, some beat-up blue jeans, laced up my boots and tossed on a light pack with the very basics. No electronics, no weapons, no gimmicks, no tools – just a poncho, poncho liner, a couple of canteens of water, some paper towels, a half loaf of bread, twenty dollars in crumpled bills and loose change, and the liner of my pack was well stocked with camouflaged cigarettes. Earlier in the day, I passed my phone off to Saul who would keep it in a locked cabinet that I would have access to, at my own risk of getting busted. Saul had told me that not bringing a phone in was for my own safety, but it was more about covering his ass – I can’t blame him. I complied, used my phone discreetly and periodically, and he then dropped it off after I had checked out.
The city shelter is not in the gentrified part of the city. It is not close to the latest developments, near the skyscrapers, or adjacent to any sporting arena, casino or convention center. It is in the old streets of the city, the derelict part of the city that people drive around and never through. It was there that I sat on the steps in the damp and heavy spring air which lingered among the streets and buildings. It felt like I was neck-deep in a dirty hot tub. From there I listened to the intense and consistent speeches on the various topics in the streets, heavier on places to obtain narcotics, and where to enjoy them. I listened, offset but interested as just another new homeless guy would.
Saul has set me up to enter under a pseudonym, and I was to blend in naturally and observe to the best of my ability. This report was set to be unusually non-traditional. Meet the new guy, as Buck became John and was dead-set for whatever challenges and new experiences the next two days and two nights were to give me. That is if Saul and I were not compromised by a record check beyond my counterfeit homeless identification card, and wax obscurification on my thumbprint for check-in scans.
Most shelters in the city require one or both methods of identification for check-in and sometimes a pin, often the last four on the ID card. Although, the scanners are not top of the line and typically used as a back-up if one happens to lose their homeless ID card. In my favor, a thumb scan won’t register the ID card. As such the ID card and pin are sufficient identification for entry.
Going in as a Homeless Veteran
At this point, I slipped away from my everyday reality, not that I was lost in my new yet begotten landscape.
I was planning for the worst case scenario; from getting Saul and me into trouble to saying the wrong thing and losing my chance of blending in. The shelter was to be my patrol base but was set to change by the next morning based upon from what I would learn that night. I was going into uncharted territory, deep into abandoned buildings, beneath the underpasses, through the soup kitchens, and was to act as a ravenous agent to delve into the underworld of what it truly means to be a homeless veteran.
Featured Image –Wikimedia Commons