This story originally appeared in the Honolulu Star Advertiser on March 15, 2013.
Darryl Vincent sees it every day in the faces of the homeless veterans who come through the doors of the shelters run by the U.S. Veterans Initiative. They need both professional help and moral support, and the ones best equipped to give them the latter are other veterans.
Vincent, 44, is a single dad who has to dart around Ewa to be a part of his two sons’ schooling, athletics and other activities, but it’s clear that heading the Hawaii office of the initiative, better known as U.S. VETS, is a consuming occupation. He has been with the agency for a decade, but last year was named chief operating officer of the three Oahu shelters. His years with the Marine Corps did not include combat duty, but the military experience gives him an affinity for some of what the clients are going through, if not the post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
The newest addition in the U.S. VETS operation is the women’s shelter that opened in conjunction with the Fernhurst YWCA. The organization works with the Veterans Administration on treatment, delivers other counseling, referral and job-training services to veterans, and partners with agencies that manage the housing.
For example, three former Navy barracks in Kalaeloa, where Vincent has his office, were converted to apartments and are run by the realty firm Cloudbreak Hawaii. At Waianae Community Center is a shelter accommodating families — most of them civilian — but that facility also provides employment to Vincent’s vets.
Vincent is pleased to see other steps being taken to support war veterans. Some of his clients are also benefiting from the state’s creation of a new veterans treatment court for those convicted of lesser crimes. The court pairs the vet with that moral support they need, he said.
“They’re getting not a social worker, not somebody at the VA, or myself,” he said. “They’re getting actually another veteran that’s been through things in their job themselves, who can mentor them, making sure they’re working this process correctly. It’s a good thing.”
QUESTION: Are you concerned that the federal budget sequester will hurt veteran services, including homeless shelters such as the ones U.S. VETS runs?
ANSWER: We believe there’s going to be potential, possible loss of funding to homeless services, period, which obviously will indirectly or directly affect veterans services. The Department of Housing and Urban Development had us develop a plan when we went out for this new renewal. We usually would get a certain amount; you’d feel like you were guaranteed to get this amount. We had to come up with Tier 1 and Tier 2: What if you get a cut, what programs you would have to do in the continuum? … We’d just adjust; we have to do the best we can with what we have. …
I believe veteran services are higher on the priority of the administration. Even I think it has bipartisan support right now, because it’s a topic everyone can address, with the war winding down. But is it still potentially on the plate that things can happen? Absolutely.
Q: How would you describe the mission of U.S. VETS?
A: My normal spiel is, U.S. VETS has been in existence since 1992, started services in ’93, in Inglewood, Calif. There was one location when it got started. It really was started by a judge who was a World War II veteran who was seeing homeless veterans on the street, and he said, “How can I make a difference?” He partnered with a for-profit developer who was able to help secure properties, and he created the nonprofit to do the social services, which is us. …
Literally, the meat of our mission is still to take homeless veterans off the street and put them through a program where they can move on to independence. But what has happened since then is the face of the veterans has changed. In the last 10 years that I’ve been working here, originally it was the Vietnam War veterans that were the majority. And still, 50 percent of our veterans are from that population. …
But we’re seeing a rise in the Afghanistan and Iraq guys that are coming back and they find themselves in a situation where they can be homeless. We saw a big rise in the U.S. VETS here in Hawaii. Last year we served 40 unduplicated homeless veterans that were from the current conflict. Discharged from the military, honorable service, got out, had mental health issues, substance abuse issues, domestic issues with their family, ended up homeless.
Q: Any from the first Gulf War?
A: It was so short, it didn’t have as much impact. But a few, we get a few.
It’s obvious it’s a correlation to the services back then. It depended how the veteran was viewed. Now a veteran is looked at with reverence, even if you don’t agree with the war. Back then (during the Vietnam War), a veteran was associated with the war, and there were a lot of people against the war. …
So our job is literally to surround our services, to make sure we’re treating our veterans. And our mission has expanded in the last couple of years. We’re not only doing the homeless veterans, we also want to prevent homelessness.
So we’ve also got grants across the nation where the veteran could be living in his home, is on the brink of becoming homeless, and we could financially help them, and help them stay in their home, and make sure they get the services while they’re still in their home, and are moving toward more permanent housing.
Q: What particular problems would the vets in your new women’s shelter face?
A: Well, I think the military culture is male-dominated. We know that. So the reality is that gets translated into not dealing with the issue and suppressing it in order to assimilate into the male culture. … We knew that if we had a separate (women’s) program, those issues would come to the top. …
They just did a whole article — I wish I’d saved it — about the military sexual traumas and the different instances they were dealing with, and how different women identified it, and it was basically swept under the rug. They were almost made to feel wrong for reporting it.
Q: You are a private nonprofit but using a lot of federal funds?
A: Oh, majority federal funds. We want to try to diversify that more. We don’t want to rely on just federal funds or state funds; we’d like to get more into fundraising, development. And we are. We raise a certain amount each year. But it’s a tricky thing. Federal money is not allowed to be used to fundraise. So I can’t draw my salary and raise money.
Q: Suicide has been seen as a problem among the troops. You provide counseling, but do you deal with that level of distress here?
A: We’ve heard the staggering numbers of how many veterans commit suicide a day, or in the course of a year. And we’re lucky enough that most of the veterans we’re encountering who are homeless, we’re able to get them to the VA, get them verified for services, and they come to us.
This environment creates a stabilization effect, that we have not had that (suicide) happen here. I think it’s a direct reflection of the program of VA services that they’re being connected with. Most of the ones we’re hearing about are either living in their private residences or could even be homeless and they’re not connected with services at the time.
Q: So they really feel alone?
A: Absolutely — whether they’re stigmatized about their mental health or don’t even know they’re going through it. That’s the barrier we’re trying to break down, that it’s OK to ask for help, that it’s not a sign of weakness.
And it’s almost a military culture: The thing that you’re taught is that you “man up,” you don’t complain, you get through it. While that’s good in certain situations, it really hinders military veterans when they’re back in the real world, and there’s things that are coming up, and they don’t know how to address them or are ashamed to address them.
So it’s our job to ensure a more safe environment, to explain that it’s not a sign of weakness; it’s actually a sign of strength to ask for help, and there’s no shame in it.
I think recently you had a general come out, talking about his own issues, and him getting help with it, to try to destigmatize it for other guys. Saying, “Hey, look, I had to get help with my PTSD — you can, too.”
Q: You hear about vets feeling bad when, for whatever reason, they’re not going back with their unit. Is that bond what supports them in the field?
A: Yes. I’m not a combat vet so I don’t want to pretend to speak for that experience. I am a veteran; I do remember how it feels to be in boot camp, and you come out feeling that you can just conquer the world with your unit. You just feel that’s what you’re built to do. It’s a sense that when you go through struggles, obviously that’s what brings people together.
And when you’re having certain missions and you have certain structure the military has, it’s very clear; it’s very black and white. It’s a pecking order, there’s no questioning it. You get told what to do and you do it. People can really respond to that and thrive in it. And it does give you a sense of ownership, a sense of belonging, and it can also give you a sense of guilt when it’s over, when you’re injured. All you can think about is, I’m not fulfilling my obligation.
So it’s learning how to make that transition of, you served your country, you should feel good about that. Even if you’re not able to continue to serve, that’s something you can always carry with you. And, how do you make that connection now to society.
Military or not, we all want to belong to something bigger than us. … We like the cohesiveness of being with people and working toward a certain mission, or at least a certain kind of common ground. The military is no different; the only difference is, they go through traumatic things together, which makes that bond even more closely related.
Q: So these shelters help to partially replace that lost bond?
A: There’s a certain camaraderie when they walk in the door. We’re here. We don’t know what service you’ve been in, but the reality is, we’ve all served at some point in time. We can all relate to that.