New Directions for Homeless Veterans
FARAI CHIDEYA, host:
I'm sitting in for Ed Gordon.
Today is Memorial Day, a time to honor the men and women who gave their lives fighting for our country. Not usually remembered on this day are the soldiers who did not die, but have lost virtually everything.
On any given day, more than 200,000 veterans find themselves sleeping on the streets they fought to protect. This year, as many as 800,000 will be homeless for some period of time. Many of them suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder and drug addiction.
To find out what happens to these lost soldiers, I visited the grounds of the largest veteran's administration facility in the country, near the heart of Los Angeles.
(Soundbite of helicopter)
CHIDEYA: A medical helicopter takes off from the VA's sprawling campus. It passes over countless patient facilities as well as a veteran's garden, a baseball field, and the Los Angeles National Cemetery. There, tens of thousands of granite markers bleach in the California sun.
In the middle of the campus stands a stately brick building with arched windows, built in the 1920s. It's home to New Directions, a non profit organization separate from the VA that's helped thousands of homeless veterans get back on their feet.
Mr. MURRAY WOOD (Head of Development and Public Relations, New Directions): (Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. WOOD: My name is Murray Wood...
CHIDEYA: Murray Wood meets us in the lobby. He's broad shouldered with glasses, and the look of a man who's found his passion. Wood gave up a lucrative university job to become New Direction's head of development and PR.
Mr. WOOD: Where we're standing today, there are more veterans within 42 miles of where we're standing than in 42 states of the Union.
CHIDEYA: That's 42 states combined. As Wood describes what goes on here behind closed doors, his enthusiasm is palpable.
Mr. WOOD: New Directions is a place literally of transition and transformation, Of people who have once been with their families, once been having jobs gainful, then going into the military, then getting out - somehow then falling down on their luck, and then they're on their way back and we see transformations.
CHIDEYA: To prove his point, Wood introduces me to Todd Roberts, a resident manager. Roberts is dressed like any other employee on casual Friday in a Polo shirt, slacks, and loafers. But he still stands like a soldier with his legs locked and his hands clasped behind his back.
Mr. WOOD: Todd, how long have you been here at New Directions?
Mr. TODD ROBERTS (Veteran): I've been here coming up on a year now, one week from now.
CHIDEYA: Like 95 percent of New Direction's employees, Roberts was once a resident. Before that, the former Marine was homeless and addicted to heroin.
Mr. ROBERTS: I was happily living out on the streets in a tent on a side of a freeway. And my parents who happened to live in Montana, retired out there, they came out to find me. And one morning, I came outside my tent, and there they were standing there. So that was a real eye awakening for me.
CHIDEYA: Roberts has only been clean a year, but says he's determined to stay that way. And he credits New Directions and his fellow veterans there with helping him do what he couldn't have done alone.
Mr. ROBERTS: We have a saying here, it's the eye rarely sees itself. Okay. I can't treat myself. The guys in the house, they see me better than I see myself. And so when we have these groups, they can tell me how I'm acting in the house, where my - you know, where I need to improve at. The things that I need to have may, need to address that I just don't see.
CHIDEYA: One reason many troubled veterans turn to drugs or alcohol is to numb emotional pain. Dr. Michael Buffington, a clinical psychologist at New Directions, says combat can create fresh emotional wounds as well as exacerbate old ones even from childhood.
Dr. MICHAEL BUFFINGTON (Clinical Psychologist, New Directions): For example, you can take a group of ten guys on average, send them into combat. Two will come back with some significant trauma, two will come back with no symptoms at all; the other guys will be mid-range. And that's usually predicated on who they were going in, and whether they volunteered or didn't.
(Soundbite of door opening)
CHIDEYA: My journey through New Directions began where it does for homeless veterans: on the third floor in detox.
Mr. ANTHONY BELCHER (Intake Counselor, New Directions): Hello. Hello. Hello. Again, my name is Anthony. Welcome to the assessment center.
CHIDEYA: Anthony Belcher runs intake. That's where veterans from the street who want help entrust themselves to men who've walked this road before.
Mr. BELCHER: A veteran can walk in here at any time of day, any time of night, and if we've got a bed, he can get a bed.
CHIDEYA: As soon as a veteran arrives, he's asked for his life history, including drug and alcohol use. Then he begins a detox that can last up to 21 days. The staff psychologist assesses him for mental illness. The results of that evaluation determine where he'll end up next, in a 12 step residential program or in a building next door for vets suffering from addiction and trauma.
Mr. BELCHER: We're called the last house on the block. So when guys get here, the average I would say is at least 15 years of active use. We've got guys that have been in and out of prisons, long-term homelessness. So here, the biggest obstacle to anyone is just believing that, you know, if I invest this time, is it going to do me any good?
Mr. WOOD: You'll see it's a very consistent part of what we do during the first days...
CHIDEYA: Wood gives me a tour of the resident's rooms. They're sunny with tall windows and clean as a boot camp barracks. The hallways features long built in wooden benches. They're there for a reason, says Wood.
Mr. WOOD: One of the assignments that every resident has is they carry a little spiral book like I do - a kind of memo book, a spiral ring - and one of their responsibilities is to speak with every other resident in the house. There's roughly 200 residents, clients here, and their assignment is to share their story so that each resident knows everyone else's story.
CHIDEYA: Newcomers are surrounded by success stories like Michael Doyle. A case manager for men just leaving rehab, he himself came to New Directions after what many here call a nudge from the judge - rehab or jail. He's quick to point out that although New Directions has a higher success rate than many rehab programs, the staff can't make a veteran change.
Mr. MICHAEL DOYLE (Case Manager, New Directions): The program is not designed for everybody. It's only designed for the people who want recovery. You know, that's the easiest part. You can go there and do it because you're court ordered or because you're desperate or whatever, but for you to be successful, you've got to want to be successful. You've got to want to come off drugs and alcohol. You've got to want to want to change your life around.
CHIDEYA: But starting over means more than kicking drugs or alcohol. For those veterans who lack basic reading and math skills, their next stop is Mrs. Smith's classroom.
Mrs. LYDIA SMITH (Teacher, New Directions): This is my stage.
CHIDEYA: Lydia Smith wears a modest blue dress. Her silver hair is pulled back in a bun. The first thing you see when you enter her classroom are two enormous posters. One is a thriving tree, its branches labeled with words like creativity and joy. The other tree is withered.
Mrs. SMITH: Before they become a resident here, before they've entered the program, they were living this tree of death, of fear and jealousy and mistrust. And the words in the root represent negative behavior. What is fed into the roots determines what's represented in the branches.
CHIDEYA: The trees of life and death are more than a symbol of transformation at New Directions. They're also part of an English curriculum Mrs. Smith has developed to make vocabulary and language more meaningful.
Veterans with more advanced academic skills move onto job training, including construction management, food service, and computer technology.
Ms. ANDREA LONEY (Computer Instructor): Okay, so I have a program where I teach them basic PC literacy, just how to turn on a computer the right way and, you know, keep it on and everything.
CHIDEYA: Andrea Loney is a computer instructor from Santa Monica College. She leads residents through a basic computer skills course.
Ms. LONEY: And it ends with getting an e-mail account and learning how to save information on e-mail, how to save your resumes on e-mail, how to save your pictures on e-mail, so that wherever you go after the New Directions program, you know, wherever you end up in life, you always have a home on the Internet.
CHIDEYA: Many of Loney's students have spent years on the streets and they're intimated at first by learning how to create spreadsheets and write business letters. But Loney says her students' success is a matter of attitude.
Ms. LONEY: You can teach anybody anything, but the most important thing to learn is how to have confidence in yourself in any new endeavor that you're learning.
CHIDEYA: One of the testaments to that sentiment is the life of Sharon Frochen, which took a sharp downturn after she left the Air Force.
Ms. SHARON FROCHEN (Fundraiser, New Directions): In the valley, I was running drugs for the Aryan Nation. I came to the Women's House and the majority of the women in the Women's House are African-American. And I was the minority, which was a brand-new thing to me. And the 11 months I spent in the program gave me the opportunity to see how stupid that was.
CHIDEYA: Now, Frochen is not only clean and sober, she's also one of New Directions' chief fundraisers. It takes millions of dollars a year to keep the organization going. And three years ago, New Directions received a grant from the federal government to launch an innovative program for veterans who are both traumatized and substance abusers.
Although the program was a success, the initial grant expires at the end of this month. This story is not particular to New Directions. Democratic Congressman Bob Filner of California sits on the House Veterans Affairs Committee. He blames the White House for forgetting veterans' needs.
Representative BOB FILNER (Democrat, California; House Veterans Affairs Committee): That's the inevitable outcome of the funding priorities that this administration has for our country. That is, we can spend a billion dollars every 2.5 days in Iraq, but we can't spend an extra billion or two for the young people who come home.
CHIDEYA: But Filner's colleague, Republican Congressman John Boozman of Arkansas, is quick to note that the House just reauthorized the Homeless Veterans Reintegration Program.
Representative JOHN BOZEMAN (Republican, Arkansas): The funding has increased. We've actually doubled it since 2000. This program actually even goes into the prisons, you know, for veterans that are about to be released, you know, that have history of addictive behavior and things, so that they won't wind up in the same situation that they're in or led to their incarceration.
CHIDEYA: A new report from the federal Government Accountability Office has some veterans' advocates worried. It found that only one in five troops returning from Iraq or Afghanistan, who were considered at risk for posttraumatic stress disorder, were actually referred for treatment by the Department of Defense.
After their discharge, some of these troops whose problems go untreated could end up on the streets. But there is good news, says Peter Dougherty, director of Homeless Veterans Programs for the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Mr. PETER DOUGHERTY (Director of Homeless Veterans Programs, Department of Veterans Affairs): Back when Vietnam was going on, we didn't have any community-based centers - vet centers, if you will - for veterans to come in and receive counseling from other war veterans.
CHIDEYA: In fact, at New Directions, residents refer to each other and their counselors as family. And the experiences shared within this family, on the benches in the hallway or around the bright red piano in the dining room, inspire veterans who had once given up on themselves to believe again.
Counselor Anthony Belcher can barely count the differences between his life before New Directions and after.
Mr. BELCHER: Well, let's see, I wake up every morning in a bed. I usually wake up with money in my pocket. I go out and get in my car. There is no comparison.
CHIDEYA: And Fundraiser Sharon Frochen has not only reconciled with her family, but with herself.
Ms. FROCHEN: You never understand what it's like to have something save your life until it's done it. And I have experienced that with New Directions. And my sense of loyalty to New Directions goes a long, long way.
CHIDEYA: Coming up: Since Gone with the Wind, depictions of black women have come a long way, but has the change been for the better? On a special edition of our Roundtable we'll discuss the image of black women in hip-hop and the media, next.
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