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Pacific Gardens

Lauren Cook/MEDILL

Drew Hall (left) and Jerrold Hermon both hope to leave Pacific Garden Mission soon. Hall wants to get an apartment for him and his mother, Hermon just wants a place to himself.

From serving their country to sleeping on its streets

by Lauren Cook
Dec 06, 2012

Lauren Cook/MEDILL

Drew Hall discusses how he came to stay at Pacific Garden Mission and how intends to get his life back together.

Lauren Cook/MEDILL

Jose Vasquez speaks about his experience with PTSD and meeting other homeless veterans with the same issue.

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Jesse Brown VA ClinicPacific Garden MissionThresholds

Post-traumautic stress disorder and its impact on veterans

Jose Vasquez’s experience post-traumatic stress disorder was mild in comparison to some of his fellow Vietnam-era veterans.

“I had a little of it, but it didn’t affect like some other guys I saw,” he said. “They really went off the wall and they had to be put in mental institutions, they couldn’t return to their family.

PTSD is a type of anxiety disorder. It can occur after someone sees or experiences a traumatic event – usually related to injury or death.

“There used to be a big stigma in the military with any kind of mental health concerns,” say Ray Leber, the public relations officer for Jesse Brown. “They’re categorized as Section 8.”

In the military, Section 8 refers to the discharge of someone who is judged mentally unfit for service, but it’s no longer practiced. Now, discharges related to mental health are handled through a set of provisions called Army Regulation 635-200.

With greater media coverage, PTSD has also become more commonly understood and accepted. Representatives of Jesse Brown said they see an increasing amount of Vietnam, Korean and even WWII vets, who used to internalize their mental health issues, come forward to receive treatment.

“They’re now approaching end of life, and issues that they though were resolved a couple years after the ware are now coming back – the bad dreams, the bad memories,” said Joseph Troiani, a former Navy commander and coordinator of the military clinical psychology track at the Adler School of Professional Psychology.

“The news you’re hearing about PTSD is helping to de-stigmatize getting help. Hopefully that’s contributing to them steeping forward,” Troiani said.

If left untreated, PTSD can lead its sufferer to self-medicate with alcohol and drugs. This substance abuse can eventually lead to alcoholism and drug addiction, which lock their users into a cycle of instability.

It’s a cycle that prevents many homeless veterans from getting back on their feet and moving on with their lives.

All across Chicago, homeless people stand on street corners and huddle in doorways. Their possessions are reduced to a couple of plastic bags. Some sell newspapers to make money, others display crudely scrawled cardboard signs and jangle cups of change. Sometimes they speak out, but most of the time they’re silent.

The homeless, who seem unpredictable, make many Chicagoans uncomfortable.

They shouldn’t worry, said Vietnam veteran Jose Vasquez. Most of the homeless “are kind of shy,” and while “some panhandlers can get a little overbearing, but that’s what they do. A normal homeless person … they’re not going to hurt you.”

He knows what he’s talking about. These days, the 68-year-old Vasquez lives in subsidized housing on South Wabash Avenue and works as an advocate with the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless. But for four years, as a homeless man, he lived on Lower Wacker Drive.

It was better than many shelters, he said. In the summer, he recalled, the concrete and shade helped beat the heat. Winters were painfully cold, but less dangerous: “Nobody’s roaming around at night, not when it’s twenty below, but in the summer they could hit you in the head, rob your stuff.”

What most people fail to realize, as they avert their eyes and pass by, is that roughly a quarter of the nation’s homeless are veterans – the same people who, like Vasquez, once devoted their lives in service of their country.

According to the Homeless Research Institute, of the estimated 23 million veterans in the United States, anywhere from 529,000 to 840,000 will be homeless at some point during the year. Each night, approximately 300,000 are living on the streets or in shelters across the country, the institute said. As temperatures continue to drop below freezing, the number seeking shelter will only increase.

Many of those homeless veterans are suffering from physical or psychological damage linked to their service.

“Veterans are twice as likely as any other American to become homeless,” said Joseph Troiani, a former Navy commander, who is currently coordinator of the military clinical psychology track at the Adler School of Professional Psychology.

“Some of the contributing factors to homelessness are what we call behavioral health problems,” Troiani said. “And a big contributor to behavioral health problems are what we call combat-related stress, combat-related mental health issue or what’s commonly referred to as post-traumatic stress disorder.”

“It affects all soldiers,” Vasquez said. “ Over in Vietnam,” he said in a detached voice, “I saw a lot of stuff.”

Vazquez returned home to Texas in 1969, and came to Chicago in 1971. But the horrors of that war, and losing his friends, made coming home a rough adjustment: “Most of the time I couldn’t sleep good and I had flashbacks. I’d be sleeping and it’ll come upon you and then I wake up – ‘Oh, I’m not there.’”

To deal with these flashbacks and the stigma of being a veteran of Vietnam – a war many Americans opposed – Vasquez and many of his fellow veterans turned to alcohol or drugs.

“When I first came home I used to drink a lot,” Vasquez said. “My breakfast was strong drink – whiskey, brandy, all that.”

After watching a friend die of cirrhosis – a loss of liver function due to alcoholism – Vasquez went sober, and he’s now been clean for 40 years.

For other veterans, staying sober isn’t as easy.

“Before I went to the service, I picked up a drug habit,” said Drew Hall, an air wireman and clerk typist who joined the Army in 1973. “Once I got in the service, I kind of embellished on that a little more.”

Hall currently resides at Pacific Garden Mission on South Canal Street. Now, with a consistent roof over his head, he’s concentrating on getting clean.

“I’m in the drug program [at Jesse Brown VA clinic], outpatient,” Hall said. “It’s helpful because I’m around a lot of people just like me … I don’t have to worry about being tempted with drugs because all of us are trying to stay off drugs.”

“It puts me around people who are trying to better theirselves and that’s what I want,” Hall said. “You can’t be in recovery, and be around people who [are] not recovering and expect help. I love it. I go there three times a week.”

Jerrold Hermon, a veteran of the Navy, also stays at Pacific Garden. He’s using their resources, and those of the VA, to get his GED and get back on his feet. When he finishes, he said, he hopes to enroll in the health care assistant program at Malcolm X College.

“In my particular case,” Hermon said, “there is one other impediment to the deal – a slight case of drug abuse, which I’m getting over. The last time I had something was March 8.”

Of the many homeless veterans he’s met from the Vietnam era, Hermon said that many “have a substance abuse problem involved.”

For such veterans, options for treatment of mental illness or substance abuse are often limited. They are often cut off from their families, and the support system families can provide. Sometimes help is far away and – without phones, or bus fare, or other basic tools for moving around -- the veterans just can’t get to it. And sometimes their pride prevents them from seeking help.

“There’s a lot of veterans on the street and in shelters because their families don’t want them, or they don’t want to go to their families, because they’ve got issues – maybe they’ve got a drinking problem now or post-traumatic stress disorder,” Vasquez said.

When groups like Thresholds, a Chicago-based group that provides healthcare to people in Illinois with mental illness, visit the Pacific Gardens Mission, struggling veterans often won’t come forward. “They would never raise their hand because they didn’t want nobody to know,” Vasquez said. “And they didn’t get help. They’re still there.”

Some veterans, like Hall and Hermon, rely on the local Jesse Brown VA clinic.

Unfortunately, with the great number of veterans returning from deployment and the high population of older veterans that require treatment, Jesse Brown, and the VA system as a whole, are struggling to keep up.

“They’re seeing a surge of problems,” said Troiani, “and, at best, they’re in a reactive mode.”

There’s reason for urgency. “The military, even in the last couple of months, have been reporting record-high suicide rates,” he noted.

The problem is being compounded by a severe understaffing of mental health specialists, Troiani said. In response, the VA system two months ago unveiled plans to hire 1,600 nurses, psychiatrists, psychologists and social workers to increase its staff of behavioral health professionals.

In addition to this nation-wide effort, Jesse Brown recently launched its Homeless Patient Aligned Care Team primary and urgent care clinic. H-PACT is “a walk-in clinic where homeless veterans can see a doctor or nurse practitioner, without an appointment, to get the medical care they need,” said Luz Hein, the chief of social work service at Jesse Brown.

Jesse Brown serves approximately 3,000 homeless vets, said Candice Bodie, director of the center’s homeless veteran program.

But first they have to get there. “People who are homeless don’t always have the luxury of scheduling an appointment,” she said. The open-access design of the clinic allows veterans to get service when it’s convenient for them.

Access to veterans’ services is one of the biggest problems faced by the homeless, Vasquez said. “How [is] he going to get to these places if he don’t have a bus card?”

There’s often a sad irony involved. “I get a big kick out of these homeless websites,” said Troiani. “Good, good, so somebody living in a cardboard box will just plug into Wi-Fi and surf the Internet and find resources?”

Vasquez and Troiani agree that to increase awareness of programs and services available to homeless veterans, groups need to do a better job with community outreach.

“There are programs, but to me they don’t announce themselves, they don’t pass out fliers,” Vasquez said. “Go to libraries and leave your fliers there. And to catch the homeless people down on Wacker, go at night.”

The Adler’s Troiani said he also hopes to increase public awareness of homeless veterans and their struggles with mental illness and substance abuse when they return from deployment.

Because America’s current conflicts take place so far away and aren’t widely covered by the media, “There’s such a disconnect with the community. That’s why this has been harder,” he said. “Returning home, it’s almost surrealistic. Coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan, you step into the world, where it’s almost like ‘Oh, there’s a war going on?”

That disconnect may make it easier for Americans to continue ignoring the plight of homeless veterans. And it may explain why veteran’s programs aren’t getting more funding. But it still isn’t right, according to Vasquez.

The veterans “did service, they went there and they put their life on the line.” And now, he said, the people walking by them every day on the street “don’t want to help,” Vasquez said.