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Homeless Vet's Story Illustrates Challenge In Getting Off The Street

The White House has vowed to end chronic homelessness among veterans by 2015. We profile one vet in San Diego whose odyssey illustrates why it's so hard to get vets off the street.

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Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

Yesterday, we reported about an event called Stand Down. It's a pop-up tent city where homeless veterans can get medical help, legal aid and spend a long weekend away from the ordeal of living on the streets. The goal is to get them housing. That goal is shared by the Department of Veterans Affairs, which wants to end chronic homelessness among veterans sometime next year. As NPR's Quil Lawrence reports, that's a challenge they'll have to tackle one veteran at a time.

QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: Can you tell me your name?

DAN MARTIN: Daniel Martin.

LAWRENCE: And how old are you?

MARTIN: 29.

LAWRENCE: Do you want to get some water?

MARTIN: Actually, it's not that I'm thirsty. It's something I've gotten from years of smoking and yelling.

LAWRENCE: I met Dan Martin at Stand Down in San Diego. He grew up in a small town about halfway between there and Phoenix, did a tour to Iraq as a U.S. Army medic and got out of the service in 2010.

MARTIN: Fast forward, here I am four years later, sitting on the street on Fourth of July - can't get a job, have no place to live. I've been wearing the same clothes for two weeks, and I'm holding a sign that says, OIF Vet - hungry, homeless, anything helps - right?

LAWRENCE: His problem started after two soldiers he knew killed themselves back home. Martin got depressed, started drinking hard, started getting in trouble with the law. He spent the next few years in and out of treatment programs and housing. He lived with his sister, then with a friend and then on the streets of San Diego. Martin says he's run out of people he can ask for help.

MARTIN: My family is going through a pretty hard time themselves. You know, they're having a hard enough time supporting themselves. I try to not tell them anything but good news. When I get to the point where I've got a job and a place to live and I can say hey, look guys - you know, why don't you come over to my house and have dinner, and I'll tell you about what it took me to get here?

LAWRENCE: He hopes that's going to happen soon. At Stand Down, he got new clothes, a shower, three square meals and most important, got a lead on housing through a VA program.

MARTIN: No strings attached - just, you know, we-want-you-off-the-street kind of housing. That's great. Given, you know, my situation, where I'm able and want to work - you know, that's the kind of stuff that really helps out because once you have a place to live, you can store your things, take a shower, cook your food. And you can start to live life like a regular human being again.

DENNIS CULHANE: You know, the whole federal strategy is coordinated around getting people back into housing as quickly as possible so that folks don't end up in a downward cycle and in a condition of chronic homelessness.

LAWRENCE: Dennis Culhane directs research at the VA's National Center on Homelessness Among Veterans. He says each year on the streets takes a toll on their health and ruins their job prospects.

CULHANE: A lot of these younger veterans in particular, you know, certainly are employable. So there's a definite emphasis on getting people back into the workforce, not stuck in the, quote, unquote, "homeless system."

LAWRENCE: The VA calls it housing first. Get vets indoors and then deal with problems like drugs or alcohol. Culhane says it's working. The most recent government numbers show 25,000 fewer homeless vets since 2010.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Stand Down. And the purpose of Stand Down is to stand up.

(APPLAUSE)

LAWRENCE: As speeches close the show at Stand Down in San Diego, the housing outreach people had their eye on Dan Martin. They thought they could help him before life on the street became a way of life. There were hints, though, that it already had.

MARTIN: Oh, thank you.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Here.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Here you go.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: Here you go. God bless you.

MARTIN: Thank you.

LAWRENCE: Stand Down organizers gave out backpacks with hygiene kits and new sleeping bags. Martin grabbed a little more than he was supposed to, including a cot from one of the tents which he had to give back.

Where do I go?

MARTIN: You could park in here if you want.

(Laughter)

LAWRENCE: We gave Martin a ride back to where he's been saying near a loading dock in northern San Diego. Camped out on that dock was Tim Fenkanyn. He invited Martin to have a seat in the shade.

MARTIN: We were just at Stand Down, man.

TIM FENKANYN: Yeah. Take a shade, take some shade.

LAWRENCE: Fenkanyn has long gray hair and leathery skin. He's been on the streets for years. Says he was in Vietnam, did 20 years with the Marines.

FENKANYN: It's all top-secret. And I was on a lot of top-secret missions.

LAWRENCE: His stories get a little hard to follow.

FENKANYN: (Inaudible) Good luck on that because Kansas City burned down, so there goes all the records. So I'm just waiting.

LAWRENCE: He's got a 12-pack of beer he's been working through. Fenkanyn didn't go to the Stand Down because he says he gets a little money for keeping this loading dock clean. And you can't have beer at Stand Down. This is all a cautionary tale for Dan Martin. Tim Fenkanyn his 57. Martin doesn't want to be living on the street 30 years from now. And there are even worse spots than this loading dock. Martin says a rough group of homeless vets live in the park along San Diego's marshy riverbed.

MARTIN: There's needles everywhere. Seriously, it's ridiculous. They're stuck in their addiction. Their wheel is in the rut. We're trying to get out before we get in that rut. If you hit riverbed, you did hit rock bottom.

LAWRENCE: The next day, a bunch of us - safety in numbers - walked down under the highway to the riverbed. We didn't see many people. The ones we saw were either passed out unresponsive or didn't want to talk to us. Joe Costello, who does housing outreach for the VA, took us down there.

JOE COSTELLO: Let's back around this way and go up the path.

LAWRENCE: The VA's talking about trying to eliminate chronic homelessness, but some of these people down here seem pretty hard-core.

COSTELLO: Some of them really are hard-core. And it's very challenging. We've run into people who we can get them off the streets today, but some of the, you know, the stipulations are, well, you've got to show up at a certain time and not be under the influence when you show up. And they're like, nope, not going to do it.

LAWRENCE: And it didn't look like Dan Martin was going to do it either. After walking around the riverbed, we ran into Martin in a parking lot near where he's been sleeping. He wasn't in a great mood. He just left an application with Veterans Village.

MARTIN: I'm not getting in there, man. I went. I did the paperwork. Here I am. So what changed between yesterday and today? Nothing. What's going to change between tomorrow and next week? Nothing.

LAWRENCE: Joe Costello from the VA tried to convince him to come look at some other possibilities, but Martin wasn't buying it.

MARTIN: I need to hear something that's going to be better than, you know, better than where I'm at.

COSTELLO: Well, that's - there's a number of different options. But yeah, like with anything, you're going to have to give up something on that.

MARTIN: Let's go, Joe. Let's go check it out. Let's go check it out.

COSTELLO: OK. Let's go do this.

MARTIN: I'm going to go check this out - that program.

LAWRENCE: OK, let us know how it turns out.

But Dan Martin didn't let us know. Most homeless people have cell phones, and I'd been texting with him. Then he stopped responding. I called the VA later, and they said Martin wouldn't go into the program. He seemed to find fault with every option they gave him. He bailed. I kept trying. When I called his phone, I got this.

(SOUNDBITE OF PHONE CALL)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: The subscriber you have dialed is not in service.

LAWRENCE: Homeless advocates say there's hope for everyone. But the veteran needs to be ready to come inside. I thought this story was going to end saying homelessness had become a way of life for Dan Martin. But after hearing nothing for six weeks, Veterans Village in San Diego got back to me. They got Martin into housing. He's got a place to store his things, take a shower and now he's trying to find a job. Quil Lawrence, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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