In a tidy block of apartments near West Palm Beach, 47 formerly homeless veterans live, plucked from the streets by the grace of God, as they like to say, at the very moment of no return.
Antonio McGahee, 53, has been staying at Stand Down House, the veterans apartment block, for four months. Before that, he was homeless, sleeping near the Tri-Rail station, getting beaten by men who broke his jaw. He is missing several front teeth but compensates with a irresistible smile.
“I collapsed on the street and they transported me to the VA hospital. I was dehydrated,” he recalled. “They put me in C3 (a lock-down detox ward) for 23 days. After that, I thought they was going to get rid of me. But they said, ‘Would you like to go into a program?’
“The tears started rolling from my eyes. This is a blessing for me, getting out of the street.”
Of all the ugly little secrets of war, perhaps the most shameful is the lot of the homeless veteran.
By conservative estimates of the Department of Veterans Affairs, about 107,000 veterans are homeless. Veterans make up one-fifth of the homeless population in this country.
The VA is fully aware of the disgrace that so many men and women who served their country now are homeless and often shunned by their fellow citizens as the dregs of society.
The VA is quick to admit that it is a challenge to serve them all, but has set a goal of ending veteran homelessness by 2015.
The VA’s specialized homeless programs reached more than 92,000 veterans in 2009, but another 100,000 must go to churches and charities for any help they can get.
Some find their way to the offices of Faith, Hope, Love, Charity Inc., the parent organization of Stand Down House, where staff members help them solve legal and personal problems.
“It’s important to get them to where they’re legal, so they do not have to look over their shoulders when they see a police car,” said Roy Foster, founder of Faith, Hope, Love, Charity Inc.
Stand Down House is full. In April, a smaller women’s residence opened next door.
And its vets-helping-vets mission is working. In 2008, when guys in suits had trouble finding jobs, 93 percent of the vets in Stand Down House found work. The same year, 84 percent moved on to live on their own.
Foster is in every way one of the guys, complete with his own nightmare past. At the end of the Vietnam War, he became a homeless vet, abusing alcohol and drugs. He got treatment at the VA medical center in Miami, then went on a colossal bender.
“After a year or so of roaming ” He stops for a wry smile that conveys a fuller meaning for that word. ” I stayed at Faith Farm for 18 months.”
That was the beginning of Foster’s rehabilitation – and his mission.
“I had in my mind that this was unacceptable, for a veteran to be in this type of situation,” he said.
Like Foster, many of the veterans gave themselves over to Stand Down House when they realized that all the alcohol and crack and oxycodone in the world could not deaden their pain.
Once the formerly homeless veteran is restored to himself, retrained and employed, it is time to find a new home, with an open invitation to visit Stand Down and recount new successes and mended families.
“For me, to see this take place is about watching the rose open,” Foster said. “That’s what brings me back here every day.”
McGahee’s face lights up when he talks about his next step – finding a job. He left the Army in 1979, on disability pay for a back injury from a Jeep accident while he was stationed in Germany. He worked for 17 years as a nurse’s assistant, a job he felt was a true calling, but then lost his job and went on the streets.
He is now finishing refresher courses, with a goal of working in the nursing home for older veterans at the VA hospital early next year.
The VA is going to replace his missing teeth.
“They want me to look better,” he said.
McGahee loved being in the Veterans Day parade last weekend.
“I was toting the Army flag,” he recalled. “I felt so good.”
As it happened, the parade marched right past the TriRail station where McGahee used to sleep.
“Things are starting to open back up for me. This is a miracle. I am strong with Christ and with the program. I know He’s shining on me and plenty more of us.”