Veterans no longer living in a box

Posted on 08. Dec, 2009 by in Uncategorized

By Almudena Toral

Before coming to the veterans’ residence on 119th Street in East Harlem, Reynaldo Melendez had no home. “I used to sleep in cardboard boxes,” he said.

A Vietnam veteran from Puerto Rico, Melendez is one of the estimated 400,000 U.S. war veterans who face homelessness every given year according to the Department of Veteran Affairs. They make up 26 percent of all the homeless adults nationally, the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans said.

Some end up homeless because of economic difficulties. Many have trouble re-adapting to civilian life and struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder, substance abuse issues or other psychosocial problems.

Jimmy Navarro, 57, an Air Force veteran who lives in the lodging, said he ended up homeless because of depression and mood swings. He said those impeded him from holding down a steady job and pay rent.

Returning service members are becoming homeless faster than their predecessors. Vietnam veterans who became homeless typically did so about 9 to 12 years after they returned home. Now veterans end up in homeless shelters months after returning from Iraq, according to HomeBase, an organization through which some of the New York City Department of Homeless Services programs are provided.

Melendez and Navarro are from the older generation –those who fought in Vietnam, Cambodia and the like – who ended up homeless some years after after they left the military.

“Very few people become homeless as a choice, you know,” said Anival Barrett, the recreational coordinator of the housing unit where Melendez and Navarro found a home in East Harlem.

He has seen many veteran homeless knock at his door throughout the years. Also a Vietnam vet, Barrett is an active member of Black Veterans for Social Justice, a Brooklyn-based organization that has several housing facilities for ex-homeless and homeless veterans in New York City.

“The shelter system is one of the most horrific things I’ve gone through,” said Navarro, glad of having gotten a room here for some months.

VA programs reach only 25 percent of the vets in need of assistance. The three-story tenement where Navarro found shelter and the organization that runs it, Black Veterans for Social Justice, were created to fill that gap and provide transitional housing for veterans in need.

Melendez slept on the streets of Midtown for more than a year before arriving at his temporary home here. He ended up homeless because of financial distress and a failed relationship with someone he was sharing rent with.

He’s OK now, he said, but he can’t wait to have his own apartment again. “I don’t really like this place, there’s a lot of people who do crack here,” Melendez said in Spanish.

Navarro and another Puerto Rican resident, Luis Domeneck, 49, don’t like either what they describe as excessive drug use among shelter residents. “My first retirement check comes in January. Then I am out of here,” Navarro said.

But despite the crack and the occasional fights among residents, Melendez, Navarro and Domeneck are glad this vets lodging exists. They pay an average of $215 for a room in a dorm-style building. And it’s a good opportunity for people like them, vets who have fallen on hard times, said Domeneck. It hosts 127 residents, 14 of whom are Latinos. Veterans get a small single room, a meal and a chance to socialize.

Within the facilities Black Veterans for Social Justice provides social services, mental health services, vocational training, employment referrals and permanent employment opportunities. Barrett said the shelter is a positive initiative in a system that does little for war veterans.

“We need to change the system, this country uses veterans and soldiers for many reasons,” he said. Barrett believes working with other veterans is necessary to help the generation of veterans now returning for Iraq and Afghanistan get better benefits than his peers did. “So they don’t have to face what we went through.”

Orphaned in childhood, Melendez joined the Army for a steady paycheck. When he quit after eight years of service, he didn’t re-adjust very well and changed jobs often.

Navarro also had trouble sticking to a job after he left the U.S. Air Force: he opened a grocery store and worked for Internal Revenue Service and the U.S. Postal Service.

It takes a while to get back on track but having this kind of assistance is helpful, Domeneck said. “There should be more places like this, more affordable housing for veterans,” Melendez said.

Tags: , , ,

Comments are closed.