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Thursday, Nov. 11, 2010 02:54 pm

Serving those who served

Help for homeless veterans in Springfield


As the cold November rain spits against the Springfield Overflow Shelter windows, Mark Weldon, 54, sips from a Styrofoam cup of hot chocolate mixed with coffee, the milky brown concoction dripping from his scraggly blonde mustache. His pale skin is wrinkled like used aluminum foil, and his grey eyes move deliberately around the room, observing everything but betraying no hint of what thoughts or emotions swirl in his mind. His words are far less ambiguous, however.

“Look at that,” he says with disgust, nodding toward Springfield mayor Tim Davlin, who has come to the homeless shelter to welcome its guests and lead the group in the Lord’s Prayer before dinner. “He comes in here talking about hard times, but he’s wearing a fucking tailor-made suit? Come on, man. It makes me sick.”    

Weldon is a homeless veteran, and it’s hard to tell which one of those two descriptors causes him more pain. He matter-of-factly says that he is homeless because of his past drug and alcohol abuse, later following that up with another frank statement: “I’ve got a lot of resentment issues, as you can tell.”

His resentment comes largely from being treated poorly as a veteran returning from service in 1975, after the end of the Vietnam War. Though he was stationed on the U.S.S. Franklin D. Roosevelt, an aircraft carrier that spent most of the war in the Mediterranean Sea, Weldon returned home to find a hostile nation ungrateful for his service.

“My dad was a World War II naval veteran, and he used to love seeing me come home in my uniform, but I didn’t do that,” Weldon says with sadness in his voice. “I would bring it with me, but when I was getting discharged, you didn’t even wear a uniform on a plane, train, bus…nothing.

“It made me feel like…Man, I don’t even want to…,” he trails off, his grey eyes now sinking toward the floor. “I know two guys who were beat up, one of them was actually killed, because they were considered ‘baby killers’ and all that.”

But the poor reception he received upon returning from the Navy pales in comparison to how he says the government treated him. As a young man aboard the aircraft carrier and eager to get home, Weldon was offered two choices: wait several months for an honorable discharge, or take an undesirable discharge that would get him home in 10 to 15 days. Undesirable discharges were generally given to service members found to be unfit for service, and they excluded the recipient from receiving any of the benefits and services to which other veterans may be entitled.    

“It’s taken them 34 years for them to finally recognize me, where I’m getting any help whatsoever,” Weldon says. “They were waiting for me to die before they’d give me anything, then they’d have an excuse why they didn’t give me anything. I served this country honorably. I was 18 years old and they were saying they could get me home in 10 to 15 days if I just signed my signature, so what do you think I did?”

Mark Weldon, 54, a homeless veteran staying at the Springfield Overflow Shelter, decided not to smile for a photo in order to show the seriousness of the issues faced by homeless veterans.

He returned home and got a job constructing corrugated buildings, but his boss soon died, effectively ending the job. He says he doesn’t even remember what happened after that.

Weldon is one of an estimated 107,000 homeless veterans in the United States. Veterans make up 8 percent of the general U.S. population, but about 20 percent of the homeless population. Homeless veterans are mainly single males from urban areas, and about half of them served during the Vietnam era. African-Americans and Hispanics together make up 56 percent of homeless veterans.

As veterans of the current military deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan return from service, the problem may worsen. Swords to Plowshares, a California-based veterans advocacy group, says 3,000 veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan had sought housing assistance from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) by the end of 2009, but because not all veterans use VA services, the true number of homeless veterans from those conflicts may be significantly higher.

Why they’re on the streets
Like other homeless people, homeless veterans face a complex and daunting set of problems that keep them on the streets – substance abuse, financial trouble and mental illness, for example – but they also have specific issues that compound those faced by the general population. Veterans may return from service with physical disabilities that prevent them from working, or they may find that the life they remember has fallen apart in their absence – a floundering economy, unpaid bills, significant others that have moved on and more.

Springfield native Jerry Renfro is a homeless veteran – a former Navy helmsman who piloted a guided-missile destroyer boat during the Vietnam War. Sitting in a rickety wheelchair among broken glass and bird droppings at the corner of Madison and 11th streets in Springfield, Renfro thumbs through the yellowed pages of The Addams Family children’s book as the evening rush hour traffic zooms by. He wears a tattered blue coat and a brown hooded sweatshirt over stained long johns, a grey knitted stocking cap on his head and a pewter ring on his right pinky finger. Though he is only 59, his deeply creased skin, unkempt beard and dirty fingernails add years to his appearance, yet he is alert and perceptive still. After returning from service, he moved to California and married his girlfriend. They divorced after eight months, and he decided to travel. He says he has lived in and wandered through 38 states, working as a welder, dishwasher and various other occupations, while experiencing homelessness off and on over the past seven years. Renfro moved back to Springfield about a year ago, slipped on some ice and broke his hip, putting him in a wheelchair.

“I should have never left California,” he says wistfully, recalling his favorite place to live and the failed surgery that was supposed to fix his hip. Since then, he has survived by panhandling and staying in homeless facilities like the Springfield Overflow Shelter.

When asked why he’s homeless, Renfro bluntly says, “Alcoholism.”

“I started drinking when I was eight, mostly out of boredom,” he continues, with startling nonchalance. “I’ve quit drinking and smoking now, but I’m getting old and I think this winter is gonna get me.”

Jerry Renfro is a 59-year-old Springfield native and homeless veteran who has traveled the nation, but recently became disabled.

His plan is to get into a local nursing home to live out the rest of his days, and although he can’t do physical labor anymore, he says he could do office work.

“I’m real good at typing,” he says confidently, miming typing motions with his worn, bony fingers.

Not all veterans are eligible for services from the VA, but when Renfro is asked whether he has ever used those services, he seems surprised to learn they even exist. The VA offers services such as substance abuse treatment, housing assistance, mental health counseling, legal representation, job training and basic health care, but not all veterans know about the services, and some may mistakenly believe they are not eligible.

For some veterans who see combat, the experience of war itself can lead to a mental condition known as post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Dr. Jeffrey Bennet, assistant professor of psychiatry at SIU School of Medicine in Springfield, says PTSD has been recognized by various names for a long time – battle fatigue, war neurosis and shell shock, among others – but it wasn’t until 1980 that the American Psychiatric Association officially recognized the condition with a name and description.

“What we’re seeing now is that many of the men and women involved in Vietnam are coming forward with symptoms that are equivalent to a diagnosis of PTSD but just weren’t recognized as PTSD at the time they came back,” Bennet says.

PTSD is an anxiety disorder characterized by exposure to a serious life-threatening stress, experienced with some degree of horror or helplessness. After at least 30 days, PTSD sufferers develop or continue to experience what Bennet calls “recurring phenomena”: flashbacks, bad dreams or bodily reactions that remind them of their traumatic experience. They may have trouble sleeping, may become irritable and may experience hyper vigilance – a state of high alert in which every second is spent watching for threats. They may deliberately forget details of the trauma and may avoid situations or stimuli that remind them of their experiences.

“People come home and have this period of adaptation where their experiences are so different from what it’s like to be back home that they simply don’t fit in,” Bennet says, adding that this can lead to interpersonal conflict in marriage and jobs, which in turn may cause veterans to abuse drugs or alcohol.

“Substance abuse is a very significant problem, and people can end up getting depression because of the loss of certain relationships or attachments,” he says. “As you can imagine, it’s hard to work if you’re depressed, you’re hypervigilant, you can’t sleep and you’re using alcohol all the time. This usually leads to difficulties becoming employed or retaining employment, and it also can lead to significant difficulties maintaining a home life and relationships.”

James Eugene Rush, 55, was a cook in the Army National Guard who went on active duty in Honduras. When he returned, his family home was foreclosed and his belongings were stolen, including military records he needed to get benefits from the VA.

Studies show that PTSD is a known risk factor for homelessness among veterans, Bennet says, and veterans with PTSD who have been homeless at one time are about 40 percent more likely to return to homelessness than those without PTSD.

“It’s a very difficult thing to treat in some people,” he says. “While there are medications and therapies that can be used, if you’re homeless, it’s hard to get those resources.”

About 10 percent of women develop PTSD, compared with about five percent of men, and the rate of PTSD among female homeless veterans is three to four times higher than in men, due in part to a higher exposure among women to trauma such as rape or sexual assault. As more women in the military are exposed to combat situations, that problem will likely grow.

A new hope
Now, homeless veterans in Springfield have a new hope for the future, as homeless outreach groups and veterans advocates team up with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to get homeless veterans off the streets and back on their feet. Through careful case management and individualized services, Springfield’s homeless vets are getting specialized attention and care to help deal with the issues they experience.

Brenda Johnson, executive director of Helping Hands of Springfield homeless outreach, is overseeing the Springfield Overflow Shelter this year, meaning she is on the front lines of the homelessness fight. When homeless people check in at Helping Hands or the overflow shelter, Johnson and her team of volunteers refer the veterans to Angelique Duarte, a licensed social worker with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.  Based at the VA facility in Danville, Duarte visits the VA clinic in Springfield once or twice each week to work with homeless veterans in the area.

“It really helps us, because they have issues we’re not equipped to deal with,” Johnson says. “If their veteran status entitles them to anything, she knows about it. It’s a huge step.”

Duarte says some veterans aren’t eligible for services or benefits from the VA because of a complex system of rules that take into account whether a veteran saw combat, whether an illness or injury arose from service and a variety of other factors. The rules are constantly changing, but Duarte works with homeless veterans to figure out what they are eligible for, including things like substance abuse treatment, mental health counseling, disability and pension pay, job training, housing assistance and basic medical care.

 “I see some veterans who never thought they were eligible for benefits, so I try to get that set up for them,” Duarte says. “If veterans are having problems like drug abuse or mental illness and they’re not connected with a support system like the VA, those problems sometimes take priority over their basic needs.”

Sometimes, Duarte’s efforts go beyond simply helping veterans navigate the system.

A 15-bed facility for homeless veterans will begin construction in March 2011 at Spring and Scarritt streets, thanks to the Sangamon County Veterans Assistance Commission and Fifth Street Renaissance.

“I’ve met some people who have no outside support network, whether it’s family or a service agency,” Duarte says. “Just having someone on their team, someone to support them and get them through difficult times is important, letting them know that they’re important and valued.”

Johnson says everyone who stays at the overflow shelter receives some measure of case management as well, helping them keep track of medical needs and other factors to try to address as many problems as possible.

“We’re trying to give everyone as much case management as they can take,” she jokes.

Sometime next year, homeless veterans will also have a new facility built especially for them, thanks to the Veterans Assistance Commission of Sangamon County and Fifth Street Renaissance. The two groups are working together on a 15-bed shelter for homeless veterans that will be located at the northwest corner of Spring and Scarritt  streets in Springfield. The facility will include 11 single-occupancy rooms, two double-occupancy rooms, a kitchen, pantry, computer room, exercise room, laundry room and more. Residents will be able to live at the shelter for up to two years while they work and save up money. Grants from the City of Springfield, the VA and other groups will pay the project’s $1.4 million price tag, and construction is scheduled to begin in March 2011.

Duarte says the VA is making homeless vets a priority now because of the large number of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans returning from deployment.

“We have seen what has happened before,” Duarte says, referring to the large number of homeless veterans from the Vietnam era. “We don’t want to see any veteran homeless, obviously, and we’re realizing that there’s going to be a huge need, so we want to have support systems in place.”

Mark Weldon, the homeless vet who served on the aircraft carrier, recently learned that he is eligible to have his undesirable discharge upgraded, which means he’ll be eligible for some services and benefits. He is planning to get through rehab, then move to Beaver Dam, Ky., where his son lives.

“I’m gonna get me a little house, a German Shepherd, an old pickup with a shotgun in the back, and just live there in peace,” Weldon says with determination. “I want to meet my two-year-old grandson and tell him that he saved my life by being born.”

Contact Patrick Yeagle at pyeagle@illinoistimes.com.


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