Homeless Vets Aren’t Much Different from You and Me
This column is about putting a face to Ventura County’s homeless veterans. Each of them is, I assure you, not much different from you and me, with their own unique backstory and purpose.
How do I know this? What makes me the expert? Because I am a veteran—and 11 months ago I was homeless right here in Ventura County.
I was first homeless in 2007 on the Fort Irwin Army base for eight months. As a married active-duty soldier, my housing allowance went to paying the rent for my family in Ojai. The Army wouldn’t put me in the barracks. I couldn’t afford a place to live, so I lived in a van on base. That was until somebody complained.
We have these labels and stereotypes of what we think a homeless person looks like or sounds like. But life isn’t like that. There are people who end up living in their cars for all kinds of reasons. Some by choice because they don’t want to be a part of a bureaucracy that functions in a dysfunctional way, and sometimes it is easier to go your own way.
For me, that’s part of why I ended up homeless a second time in 2016.
I heard about the VASH voucher program (housing assistance for homeless vets) and applied. But the application process, which can be daunting, stalled.
I was ready to throw all the paperwork in the trash and keep living in my car.
But a fellow veteran suggested I contact the office of U.S. Rep. Julia Brownley, who in turn suggested I contact the Gold Coast Veterans Foundation. It is an organization of veterans helping out fellow vets. Through them, I got inspired. I got help. I got a home. I felt renewed. Somebody actually wanted to help me.
I’m now completing an addiction counseling certificate at Oxnard College and looking into obtaining a master’s degree in social work through the VA’s vocational rehabilitation program.
A staff member of Gold Coast Veterans Foundation’s Leave No Veteran Behind program, for which I volunteer, suggested I start writing about the veterans we help.
One common question I get from people is: How do we approach a homeless veteran who we think could use some help?
When you approach, it’s important to know that each veteran is going to be unique and different. There are veterans of combat, veterans who never deployed, veterans who lost limbs, veterans who worked in support and administration. There are those who have PTSD from combat, from sexual assault, perhaps even from a difficult childhood.
It is crucial we evaluate each veteran on an individual basis, not compare them to others.
Part of how we can help vets in our communities, and particularly homeless veterans, is to be empathetic in the way that we ask these questions. Put aside assumptions. Don’t look at someone like me and say, “Well, how did you end up living in your car? What went wrong?”
Maybe in my mind something went right. Maybe life has offered me a different set of challenges than life has offered you.
My first encounter with a homeless person was when I was 7. I remember walking out of our apartment in Philadelphia with my mom. A homeless guy was sitting against our wall. I asked my mom if I could give him my peanut butter sandwich from my lunch bag.
She said yes.
Maybe that is the best way to help a homeless veteran: Be like a child who doesn’t offer advice but just shares.
This month marks the one-year anniversary that I’ve been in my apartment. I know that no one is guaranteed a happy ending just because they make it to the last page, but so far, so good.
Rafael Stoneman, a former Ventura County homeless veteran, now volunteers for the Camarillo-based Gold Coast Veterans Foundation, a nonprofit organization. For more details, visit www.gcvf.org.
Source: The Camarillo Acorn – June 15, 2018 edition