Need outstrips supply of beds for homeless veterans

Daniel Machado, a Vietnam-era veteran, leans against a bunk Wednesday at a homeless shelter for veterans in San Diego, positioning himself to be at the front of the food line.

The Associated Press
Published: Sunday, April 1, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, April 1, 2007 at 12:00 a.m.

SAN DIEGO - Now that warmer weather is arriving, the giant tent that was a winter home for 150 veterans is being packed away.

"For most of us, it's back on the streets,'' says Marvin Britton, a former military policeman who's been crisscrossing the country since leaving the Army in 1971 following three combat tours in Vietnam.

The battered tent, pitched on a Navy parking lot, is reflective of a problem that almost certainly will worsen as more troops come home from Iraq and Afghanistan and leave active duty - there just aren't enough beds for vets who end up homeless.

"We all feel like we are fighting against a clock,'' said Toni Reinis, who runs New Directions Inc., a Los Angeles substance abuse center providing residential and outpatient care for homeless vets.

No one knows for sure how many homeless there are - estimates vary from hundreds of thousands to millions.

According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, there are about 195,000 homeless veterans on any given night. Last fall, the VA estimated a shortfall of 9,600 "transitional'' beds for those vets, accommodations intended to serve as a stepping stone from the streets to independent living.

The VA has secured funding for up to 1,800 beds to be added by the end of this year and is seeking $15 million more from Congress for more beds.

"It's a very, very high priority,'' said Peter Dougherty, the VA's director of homeless programs.

Until 1987, there were no VA-funded programs catering to homeless vets, but now there are more than 200, Dougherty said. The VA employs about 230 outreach workers who specifically look out for homeless veterans and has increased the number of health clinics.

In the last two years the VA has classified 1,049 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans as being at risk of homelessness. Of those, about 300 ended up losing their homes.

Former Marine Cordney Gordon was one of those recent vets who found himself without a place to live. After one tour in Afghanistan and two in Iraq, he left the military last year and was on the streets months later.

Anger problems, stress and depression plagued him. After his marriage broke down, Gordon, 30, had nowhere to live, became suicidal and ended up in a VA hospital.

"I really thought my life was over with,'' he said.

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