Homeless Veterans

The number of homeless veterans has been going down, except for the ones who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. They tend to stay with family and friends and this is making it harder for them to get the help they need from the Veterans Administration. Charlie Eckert reports.

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Dennis Pichardo sits on a couch in his one-bedroom apartment in Tappan, New York. It’s about a half hour north of New York City.

PICHARDO: Here’s where it starts. Here’s where my life begins again. (0:03)

Pichardo grew up not far from here in the Bronx. He says he was kind of a knucklehead.

PICHARDO: I was a typical inner city youth and I knew I wasn’t going to make it. (0:06)

So at age 17 he signed up for the Marines. He did two tours in Iraq and three in Afghanistan. The last one was in 2012 in western Afghanistan, where one of his missions was to close down a base on a road lined with IED’s.

PICHARDO: It was crazy. It was like literally every two seconds like a boom, a boom, a boom. We’re getting our brief and we’re going to move out and boom, boom, boom, boom. After that operation that was when everything started like really spiraling. (0:13)

Spiraling as in out of control for Pichardo.

PICHARDO: You know, no sleep, stressed beyond belief, irritable. (0:04)

After 9 years of war, Pichardo was starting to crack. His post-traumatic stress disorder was bad enough that he knew he couldn’t be in the military anymore. The problem was he didn’t have a home, so he had to stay with family and friends.

PICHARDO: Tito, Pancho, Vinnie, Tia Clenia, Tio Johhny, my mother and Tia Carmen. (0:05)

All the disruptions made him unstable and suicidal. After not sleeping for five days straight, he intentionally drove his motorcycle into a guardrail. The Veterans Administration has services that might have helped him but because Pichardo was couch surfing, he was off its radar.

HANSMAN: They are using this very, very narrow definition of what homelessness is. (0:04)

Jason Hansman is an advocate for veterans of the most recent wars. He says the VA’s program is geared towards chronically-homeless veterans who served during the Vietnam era.

HANSMAN: At the same time you have this population, the Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who are suffering, who are on couches, who do not have permanent housing, that are kind of falling between the cracks. (0:09)

And that’s what happened to Dennis Pichardo. As long as he was couch surfing, he wasn’t able to get all the services that were available. The VA acknowledges that there is a problem but defends prioritizing veterans who are living in the street.

KUHN: As terrible as it is to couch surf, it is even worse to sleep on the sidewalk. (0:05)

John Kuhn directs a program at the VA that funds groups that help homeless veterans and their families.

KUHN: And we want to make sure that the people at highest risk, who are most vulnerable, we prioritize them for services. (0:07)

In fact, for Dennis Pichardo it wasn’t until he started sleeping in his car a couple nights a week that he was considered homeless. Only then could he get all the services he needed, including keys to his own apartment.

PICHARDO: This place has been the key to my recovery. It really has. (0:05)

He moved in a year ago on Veterans Day. He’s 33 now and still struggles with his PTSD. But he’s in therapy and he’s thinking about going into a 40-day inpatient program.

PICHARDO: I can move forward with my life from here. It’s a great stepping-stone and I have plans, like, I’m not going to be here forever. (0:07)

The VA’s goal is to end veteran homelessness by next year. Charlie Eckert, Columbia Radio News.

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