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Homeless veterans deserve our help

With Veterans Day behind us, we need to remember that we still have so much to do to serve our honored veterans, including the thousands who are homeless.

Robert Foley, a Navy veteran, was once one of those. At 56, Foley still proudly wears a Navy cap with an American flag pin. A humble man, he talked recently of how — after a painful divorce, unemployment and the emergence of a bipolar disorder — he became homeless in 2011. One night he found himself sleeping fitfully, wrapped in two thin blankets on the cold, hard concrete floor of a friend’s garage.

At that point, Foley, who had served as a boiler technician in the Navy, was one of about 63,000 homeless veterans in the United States. Those veterans represented about 13.3 percent of all homeless adults, according to a report by the U.S. Department of Housing & Urban Development (HUD). The total number has since been declining, but much work remains to be done to truly bring them all home. Moving through the hazardous, unfamiliar space of homelessness was challenging for Foley.

“I lived on streets, on peoples’ porches, in their garages, in barns or wherever I could get shelter,” he said. “When you’re homeless, accessing even your basic necessities, such as a shower, a restroom, a place to eat, somewhere to stay dry and clean, is difficult and stressful. Even more so if you have medical or mental health issues. It was basically about survival. You think each day will get better, but it doesn’t.”

He tried to muffle the voices of the past, declining to offer too much detail about his ordeal. Holding him back during his travails were comments by fellow street people that seeking succor would be a sign of weakness.

“One of the hardest things for me,” he recalled, “was reaching out for help when some people just said, ‘Be a man.’”

But he finally reached the end of his rope.

About a year and a half ago, he called the Veterans Administration’s nationwide crisis number. Within two hours he got a call from the homeless veterans program at the Portland VA Medical Center. He was taken there first, and then headed to the Salvation Army’s Veterans & Family Center in Beaverton.

Foley arrived at the center with nothing but the clothing he was wearing.

Working as a team, a multitude of organizations reached out to bring Robert Foley back. The center, supported by VA dollars, Salvation Army funds, and supplementary private fundraising, is a comfortable, welcoming place that was formerly a retirement home. Foley had a rough transition at the start of his stay, but it provided him with much welcomed safety, shelter in a plain room, three meals a day and clean clothes.

The center helped him sign up for mental health classes and visits with a psychiatrist and primary care physician. Then, to help him stay on a positive path, he was required to take a breathalyzer test for alcohol twice a day and random urinalysis tests for drugs.

Community Action of Washington County partnered with the center, assigning a capable, caring caseworker to work closely with Foley and help him get back on track. She got him enrolled in a free “Rent Well” education class that helps train prospective renters who are having difficulty being accepted for rental units.

Community Action also gave Foley invaluable free bus passes, so he could make appointments and get around, and helped him find an apartment.

After living at the Veterans Center for almost a year, Foley moved into his own apartment in Tigard, with his rent paid by HUD through the VA and his food covered by the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. He has no extra spending money, but somehow he’s adjusted.

Foley continues to meet regularly with his Community Action caseworker to help deal with issues as they arise.

“Having somebody to talk to that doesn’t look down on you, that helps a lot,” he said. “You feel comfortable. A lot of us don’t open up. We just bury all our problems, and that doesn’t help at all.”

Foley also stays connected with the center, coming back frequently to visit people, assist with the collection and distribution of clothes, mow the lawn and do other chores. He is full of gratitude for all the people who’ve stood by him, and is optimistic about his future.

“Compared to a year and a half ago, this is tremendous,” he said. “I’m ecstatic about life.”

Leda Garside, RN, is clinical services manager for Salud Services, an outreach program of the Tuality Healthcare Foundation.

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