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US vets return to streets to reach the homeless

December 24, 2013

CONCORD, Massachusetts (AP) — David Dyer has a family, a home and a job: helping homeless U.S. military veterans get off the streets, like he did.

Dyer is part of a team that the state of Massachusetts has hired to get veterans off the streets in the Boston area. Typically, they spend one day a week roaming the city’s storefronts, alleys and shelters. The rest of the week is spent making sure those who have found housing are staying on track.

President Barack Obama’s administration has pledged to eliminate homelessness among veterans by the end of 2015. And while the rate has been dropping, time is running short.

So communities are aggressively hitting the streets. Using formerly homeless veterans such as Dyer and team leader Christopher Doyle helps them make connections with a community that often is distrustful of people who haven’t experienced what they’ve been through.

“When they say, ‘Oh, you don’t know what I’m talking about,’ I can say, ‘Yeah, I do, because I was there myself,’” said Doyle, who at one point lived in a VA homeless shelter.

The federal government estimates that the homeless rate among veterans has dropped by about 25 percent in the past three years, but nearly 58,000 veterans remain on the streets or in temporary shelters on any given night.

“I have said from the beginning, the climb will get steeper the closer we get to the summit,” Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki said earlier this year in Washington. “In the end, we will have the toughest, most difficult cases to solve — some prior failures, some behavioral problems, even some serious mental health issues.”

To estimate the number of homeless veterans, the federal government relies on an annual count that takes place in January. Thousands of volunteers, government employees and nonprofit workers search their local streets, parks and shelters in an effort to count the number of homeless people. The latest count in Boston estimated 458 homeless vets on any given night in 2013, a drop of 15 percent over the past three years.

Most of the Boston team’s clients have drug and alcohol issues that require counseling and treatment. Harrington said he’s never had a problem with drugs or alcohol and said his problems were financial. He said in recent years he spent most of his nights at the airport. At dawn, he’d head over to the Boston Public Library.

One night, an airport worker brought in a social worker from the VA to talk to him. He marveled at the support he’s received.

“They had a whole team of support people, like, if you need furniture, they get you furniture. If you need food, they’ll bring food to you,” Harrington said.

But other cases are much tougher.

At Boston’s Emmanuel Church, Bryant Draycott says he’s been told he is No. 5 on the list to get a government voucher that would let him live in an apartment. The Navy veteran said he’ll take help, but only on his terms.

“I refuse to use the term homeless. With me, I’m on vacation.”

Draycott estimates that he’s been on vacation for about eight years.

“And loving every minute of it,” he said.

Then there’s Thomas Moore, 79, who has no interest in getting a government-subsidized apartment.

Sitting on the sidewalk a block from Boston’s most luxurious shopping boutiques, Moore described having a “nervous breakdown” as a 17-year-old serving on the front lines in Korea. When he gets tired of living on the street, he said, he’ll rent a cheap hotel room for a month.

“There’s something about the rough edge of living out here that distracts me from my inner life,” Moore said.

The veterans’ homeless team doesn’t plan to quit asking him if he’s changed his mind.

“You don’t know when it’s going to be that day when somebody says I’m done living like this and accepts the help,” Dyer said.

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