Vets Can Find Support
I recently helped a homeless man get a roof over his head. I have known him since 1985. We met back east right after his father died. He helped me miraculously sell my turquoise VW with lots of self-induced ink on the inside top vinyl surface that couldn’t be erased. He had been working in real estate before I met him but was disillusioned about the business. He wanted to become an angel.
BT is an honorable Vietnam Era Navy veteran. He had mental and emotional issues causing him difficulties and personality clashes with most people. Only by knowing him this long have I begun to understand what he’s going through. He’s very intelligent, but for most of the last three decades his sensitive heart has been overwhelmed by confusion and rage. This last year, while helping him, I learned why his anger has been there.
He spent most of the past ten years living on the gritty streets of Los Angeles and Long Beach, after he’d spent three years on his brother’s couch. In the beginning of his outside adventure he loved his freedom. By the end, he barely knew who he was any more. He’d grown up on military bases all over the country because his father was in the Air Force. He’d learned it was often easier to run than to deal with his problems.
How many when struggling with a neighbor or mate wish they could bolt, grab essentials and roll away to another zone to get some perspective? It’s one thing to run away for a few hours or a day or two, but what happens when life is so uncomfortable the only option is running, constantly? Many are never able to stand still because the quiet brings up the haunting pain that doesn’t make sense, and can’t be unraveled for long without help. Sure, there are little band-aids, distractions, and many agents that can numb the pain for a few hours. Often these issues cause more crisis and the problems stack up. Complications catapult into catastrophe and people fall through the cracks.
I’d lost touch for a few years. When I first moved into the neighborhood I’d see him on his bike and avoid him. Then I ran into him at a local Starbucks. Months later I saw him walking on Colorado near the park. Both times I stopped what I was doing to talk with him.
The last few years I tried to find him again, but had no luck. I went everywhere he’d said he hung out. I left messages for him. I had no luck. Finally this past December I discovered he’d been arrested, then transferred from jail to the psych ward at Vets Hospital.
I visited him after not seeing him for two years. I’d never seen him in that condition. He was gaunt, terrified, and sick. He could barely see and was extremely hard of hearing. He had a growth in his throat, prostrate issues, polyps, and a mouth full of rotting teeth. His numerous physical ailments had grown at an alarming rate, unchecked while living out in the wilderness of the increasingly abandoned among us.
He didn’t have much interest in continuing his life as it had been and didn’t think he deserved anything better. He was ready to say goodbye because he was too tired to care anymore. Hit over the head by thieves, he had concussions that went untreated that were adding to his mental lack of clarity.
He admitted, “I got addicted to coffee and cigarettes. It reduced my appetite. I thought I was functioning.” He told me many times after a few days of not eating he experienced such hunger that he shook uncontrollably and almost fainted from the pain of it. That’s when he’d scrounge through trashcans and eat old, cold, half eaten pieces of pizza or whatever else he could get his hands on.
But the most amazing thing was—he was crystal clear about his emotional issues. Years earlier he’d admitted to me that he always tried to get me to react emotionally so he would know what emotions he was supposed to be feeling. I’d known for years that his father was an abusive alcoholic. I’d known he was the first-born of four who received the biggest brunt of horrifying treatment. The second born, the other brother, learned how to bury his head in his sketchbook to ignore the wrath of their father and became a Harvard trained architect and urban planner.
I’d never seen B so calm. He’d been warned multiple times by police to get off the streets. I didn’t know he was a vet. His brother never told me he was a vet. B has been medically classified but after twelve years of taking their meds, he refused to take drugs most professionals demanded he take to keep him manageable. Having experience with therapy myself, I knew what it took to heal and change. I felt something in him I’d never seen before. I wanted to help. My therapist told me there were services available for him, as a homeless person, as a vet, and as someone who was mentally disturbed. I had no idea these options were available for him.
B created encampments for himself in residential parks to get out of the downtown, which had been a more violent existence. Pumped up on free coffee (Thank you Starbucks) with very little substantial food, he made friends and enemies as he moved from park to park after enduring numerous concrete habitats. Many people in our great city gave him furniture so he could live outside more comfortably. Repeatedly he’d experienced other homeless men kicking his head while he was sleeping in order to steal whatever he had been given.
In our great shiny pearl necklace of an ocean-side city, B became almost a known entity. He reminded me of Laguna Beach’s “Official Greeter” Eiler Larsen who was famous in the 60s. A year ago, B looked like Eiler, both sported scraggly long hair and a similarly shaped beard. B gained infamy when Mayor Robert “Bob” Foster and Councilman Gary DeLong exchanged five emails about how to get this increasingly well-recognized hoarding homeless person out of the parks that accompany some of our nicest neighborhoods. Apparently, many voters complained but no one wanted the intelligent and polite elderly man to be hurt as he was taken from their upper middle class existence.
It’s been a journey, working with all the different agencies that exist to find the homeless homes. The first person I met was Leonard Adams who had been trying to help B for four years. Leonard works for the City of Long Beach and is stationed at the Long Beach Rescue Mission. He is also a Veterans Outreach Worker with Long Beach’s Multi-Service Center. Leonard was the most helpful. Regardless how much Byron fought the system, Leonard used his knowledge and human understanding to help B conceive of and create a better life for himself. Leonard never gave up, even though B’s frustrated behavior scared off numerous others from trying to assist him.
B’s first stop was a corrupt and uncomfortable housing facility. The owners intended to take almost all of his monthly social security money. He was uncomfortable amongst those housed and the staff. That’s when I discovered he didn’t know how to speak up for himself. With the help of an assistant at Vets and a wonderful Filipino woman, we transferred B to a convalescent hospital. He stayed there for ten months while we worked patiently (and occasionally without a shred of patience) to get him a HUD-VASH voucher.
In order to get this voucher he had to go through two interviews with PATH. He had to supply his bank statements and social security allowance paperwork. In March we were told he might possibly find housing by the end of April. In May the Housing Authority needed updated bank statements and SS income proof, which had been supplied months earlier but had been waiting piled up on someone’s desk. By June 4th the government stopped accepting applications for the Continuum of Care Program. I think that was one of the biggest reasons for the hold up. B was still living in the convalescent hospital complaining about feces in the shower stalls and food he didn’t deem healthy and couldn’t stand to swallow. The people were kind but B felt so horrible about his own situation, he just wanted to curl up into a ball and die.
In the early years of this century I gave both Thompson brothers information about the MHA (Mental Health America) village. B found a therapist and was walked a block away where he was told he should rent a bedroom in a tiny hotel with communal bathrooms for $500 a month. He appreciated the therapist but his wrath for the system that just wanted to “drug him” got to a point he broke it off with her.
This spring I insisted when trying to move B along the road the “system” promised would lead him to housing, that he go back into therapy. Having just gotten through chemo myself I didn’t have extensive energy. I contacted his previous therapist and told her how much he had changed in the preceding years, and that he was ready now to get help. Once B started seeing her again, he calmed down. It’s not that he isn’t still depressed and highly anxious, but he could hear what she was saying, and he was integrating her insights.
I helped him get glasses. He could barely see. Turns out his other health concerns were manageable and not life threatening. He was able to get some dental work and save a few teeth. Little by little things were getting better. I kept telling B to breathe and pray. Little by little it was working.
I did question whether any of this would happen for him. I spent hours on the phone trying to get information and move the system along. I was repeatedly told, “This is how the system works. You just have to be patient.” As a result, I have learned the power of researching carefully and assertively requesting for the assistance that is advertised as available. I discovered by trial and error, how to be an advocate.
When given acceptable and standard excuses for why the process was taking so long, I threatened to write about how The System wasn’t working. I called the mayor’s office. I called supervisors. I felt I was pushing too hard, yet within an hour (or a day), the logjam that couldn’t be moved, moved.
I know many need help. I know one must find a way to stand out in order to get attention. My mother taught me early on, “The squeaky wheel gets the grease.” Until I met Leonard, I’d never met someone who understands the squeaking and knows how to stop it. Leonard was “The Oil Man.” Whenever B had a problem he couldn’t work through, he called me. Leonard always had an idea or an answer, and no one had more patience while explaining what solution might solve the problem at hand.
Meanwhile B, having been a child of abuse and told during his formative years that he was no good, felt he didn’t deserve anyone’s help and his life was useless. As he gained weight and slept indoors with a pillow on a bed, his body did rejuvenate. As the months progressed, so did his mind.
It took from January to late June to get the voucher, which would help him find housing which wouldn’t cost him more than a third of his social security check. It took four more months to find the perfect place, but sure enough, where he is right now is a delightful one bedroom in a friendly elderly unit that I truly believe will become his home. I kept promising B that his best days were ahead. Now looking back at how it all worked out, I know divine guidance had a hand in it.
When in the psych ward he told me succinctly where he had gone wrong in his life and why he’d been so troubled and socially difficult during his 72 years of life. When facing death, he truly saw his life in perspective. I told him then that with this understanding and a desire to begin again, to ask for help, and not sabotage himself and others constantly—he could create a life that was worth living.
He has a support system of people who work for these city agencies that extended assistance. At a little gathering for B in his new apartment, nine people who helped along the way came bearing gifts welcoming him to his new life. They assured him they’ll continue wanting to help, and deeply thanked him for teaching them never to give up on someone. As they said, “We knew B was special. He didn’t drink or do drugs.” As Leonard wrote in his professional assessment, “Client would like to thank the Continuum of Care agencies that were so persistent in helping him obtain permanent housing and for never giving up.”
B now understands how his mental health kept him homeless for so long. I know he wants to help others just as frustrated, rebellious and confused as he has been. I pray he’ll continue to get stronger and in time become a beacon for both those wanting to help others and those afraid to admit they need help.
ONE MONTH LATER
He actually said that he feels just as awful now as he did in the convalescent home and on the streets. He knows he is self destructive. He knows his mind is playing tricks on him about what is real and isn’t real. He rode his bike today over to Vets to get a free flu shot. They were closed. The folks that said they would deliver a bed and furniture within a month, said two months. Now they are saying he should probably buy a bed. He doesn’t feel well enough to get little things done for himself, like getting to Social Security to get the checks returning to him and away from the convalescent hospital. I loaned him an air mattress and though he admits its been a life saver, admits that he’s really starting to hate it. He called around to get people to do for him what he needed to get done. No one arrived to help. He won’t call back to ask where is the intern who was promised to give him a lift and get him to the SS building to change his address and fix the banking snafu. Huffington Post didn’t want to post this story. My therapist thinks this is a good story for the New Yorker. But I won’t send it. This story didn’t turn me on to write and to read again it is still drudgery and causing depression. I had really hoped this would be a new healthy beginning for him. As he said less than an hour ago, “I’ve had to readjust my expectations.”