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Fresno is working to end veteran homelessness

post courtesy of The Fresno Bee’s George Hostetter

Fresno is taking part in a national initiative perfectly attuned to Memorial Day weekend — end veteran homelessness by 2015.

A huge challenge, to be sure, but John Estrada knows it can happen. He’s reminded of the possibilities every time he looks in the mirror.

“I’ve been on a long journey,” said Estrada, a Navy veteran getting his life back together in Fresno after long periods of living on the streets. “A lot of veterans don’t want to ask for help because they’re proud. I’m here to tell them — ask.

“That’s what I did.”

The initiative is called “25 Cities” and its goal is to end chronic as well as veteran homelessness by the end of next year.

The structure is complex.

The initiative’s sponsors are the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the U.S. Interagency on Homelessness.

Then there’s a leadership team in each city. Fresno’s consists of the Fresno/Madera Continuum of Care, the VA hospital, the Housing Authority, Fresno County and City Hall.

Developing the plan comes next. That happens on Wednesday and Thursday when leaders gather in Fresno for a combination workshop/campaign kickoff.

The agenda is pure bureaucratic nitty-gritty: Itemize resources, delegate responsibilities, set goals. Mission progress will be reviewed at the 50- and 100-day marks. Reforms born of experience will be made. This process repeats itself for 19 months as the Dec. 31, 2015 deadline nears.

No local leader expects an easy go of things. But they have no doubt about the initiative’s value.

“The national effort on veterans is an overwhelming recognition that it’s immoral for a country to have someone serve in the military and then end up homeless,” said Preston Prince, Fresno Housing Authority chief executive.

Fresno was selected for the initiative in part because of its large population of homeless veterans, and also because City Hall and other local agencies have shown a sustained commitment to tackling the problem.

“The city of Fresno and its partner agencies are frequently referenced on a national level as a community embracing best practices for addressing homelessness,” Mayor Ashley Swearengin said. “The 25 Cities initiative is another example of a multiagency collaboration focusing on meaningful change.”

It’s impossible to say how many veterans are on Fresno’s streets. The homeless by definition are rootless. The occasional census is imprecise — to say one is a veteran isn’t the same as actually being a veteran.

But local officials say there are at least 400 homeless veterans in Fresno.

Officials have a good idea how things will work.

The first step is finding the veterans. The Housing Authority and the Swearengin-initiated Fresno First Steps Home nonprofit, among others, have spent several years identifying the city’s chronic homeless. Officials will know where to start.

There will be no coercion. Veterans who want help will be verified by the VA as having served. Officials encourage any homeless person who served, even if the discharge was other than honorable, to speak up. Some type of help is available, they said.

Then comes the solution.

The initiative is based on the same “housing first” philosophy that Swearengin and Prince have pursued for years. This can take any number of paths. Typically, emergency housing is found first, then transitional, and finally permanent. VA vouchers and Housing Authority expertise will be vital at this point.

Male and female veterans can end up homeless for the same reasons that plague the general population. A job is lost with no money in the bank. A divorce leads to deep depression. The nightcap turns into alcoholism. This list is long.

But military service also has its unique stresses. These can lead to physical and psychological trauma that emerge only after the return to civilian life.

It’s here — at this juncture of human frailty in the wake of patriotic duty and government policy — that the “25 Cities” initiative seeks to break new ground. No one claims to have suddenly discovered veteran homelessness. It’s always been on the radar screen, officials said. But, they add, the time has come to redouble the effort.

“We know, going forward, we’re going to see a huge difference,” said Catovia Rayner, assistant chief of social work/homeless coordinator at the Fresno VA hospital.

John Estrada has lived the difference.

Estrada, 58, was born in Sanger, lived awhile in Fresno, then moved to the Bay Area with his family. While in the Navy (1975-1978), he sustained back and neck injuries when hit by a motorcycle while walking.

The next 35 years were largely a spiral into despair, Estrada said. Too much booze. A couple of failed marriages. Physical pain. Prolonged depression.

He lived in the back seat of his car. He was homeless on the streets of San Jose, Hayward, Las Vegas and Fresno. He quit drinking but remained depressed. He lived for 90 days at the Fresno Rescue Mission.

“I had post-traumatic stress disorder, but I didn’t know it,” Estrada said.

It all changed six months ago. VA officials certainly helped, he said. They got him housing and offered him a job at the hospital as a vocational rehabilitation specialist.

“When they asked, ‘Do you want to help veterans get jobs,’ I thought that was the coolest thing in the world,” Estrada said.

But the biggest change was within, Estrada said.

“I had to learn that yesterday is gone, tomorrow isn’t here yet, so the best moment is now,” Estrada said. “I’m now focused on living my life the best I can at this moment.

“The VA can help. Veterans, being proud is one thing. Don’t think of asking for services as being selfish. If you’re helping yourself, then you can help someone else.”

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