Homeless veterans of the Vietnam War have been a face of American poverty for decades, and now some veterans of a younger generation are dealing with the same difficult issues.
"I had my apartment up until 2011," says Joshua, a 28-year-old Navy vet, who asked not to give his last name because of the stigma of being homeless. "[I] couldn't keep up with the rent; I did a little couch surfing and then ended up on the street for a while."
The economy is tough, and he was surprised that his skills in the Navy didn't translate into anything marketable once he mustered out. He says he wasn't equipped to deal with the civilian world after years of military structure and support.
"It was a total life change and I was like, 'I don't understand, I served, I have all these skills and no one is willing to hire me,' " he says.
Joshua has been living at a residence run by Veterans Village of San Diego (VVSD), and recently he joined about 1,000 homeless vets at an annual event called Stand Down. It's a tent city on the grounds of San Diego High School, where, for three days, homeless vets can sleep on dry cots and eat warm meals.
A Range Of Services
Veterans Village has been holding the event for 25 years. Local and national charities provide medical checkups, dental care, showers and new clothes.
There's even an open-air court to clear up outstanding warrants that might make it hard to get a job. Organizers say Stand Down aims to clear all the obstacles that could prevent a fresh start.
The event still primarily serves veterans from the Vietnam War, though it now includes some younger faces.
The majority of Iraq and Afghanistan vets at this summer's Stand Down are not homeless, but volunteers there to help out. Mike Judd did two combat tours in Iraq, and he now works at Veterans Village. It doesn't surprise him that many of his contemporaries are hitting hard times.
"Right out of high school, now they're a soldier, now they're a Marine," Judd says. "They spend months, years in combat, in military bases, in barracks, and then they're given like a week to become a civilian. I know very little, but I saw this coming."
The Pentagon and the Department of Veterans Affairs have recently stepped up efforts to combat the problem, including a $100 million program announced in July. The VA estimates that about 67,000 vets are homeless, a 12 percent reduction from the previous year.
The White House has announced a plan for no vets to be homeless by 2015, but it recognizes that the new generation of vets, many of them exposed to multiple combat tours, has its own set of problems.
A Sense Of Alienation
"I kind of feel separated," says a two-tour Iraq vet named Paul, who also declined to give his full name. "I don't like most people, I don't have many friends. It's not that I don't like normal civilians, it's that I can't identify with them."
Paul, a Marine sniper, says combat left him with post-traumatic stress. He came to Stand Down to apply for a spot in the Veterans Village residential program.
A judge ordered him to choose between that or prison for his second drunken driving charge, when police also discovered a loaded gun in his car. Paul admits he drinks too much, and he also admits that he misses the thing that traumatizes him.
"You can't get quite that rush, that feeling on the edge that you get in combat," he says. "It sounds kind of twisted, but I enjoyed it very much. Save the fact that I lost some friends and lot of friends got maimed. But you know if I could, I'd go back right now."
But when he gets out of Veterans Village, Paul will have to learn to interact with the civilian world, which he still finds incomprehensible.
"You have a military at war, and a nation at the mall," he says. "What [are] peoples' priorities especially in my age bracket? All they care about is Facebook, the Kardashians, pop culture [and] their iPhone."
At the end of the Stand Down weekend, Paul did land a space at Veterans Village San Diego. After about a year there, he might still not relate to the crowds at the mall, but he may figure out a way to deal with them.
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish. Now, the problem of homeless veterans. One place to find them is San Diego County in California. Maybe it's because of the large number of military bases nearby, maybe it's the mild weather. But for a generation, shelters in San Diego have been helping vets, most from the Vietnam War.
Now, younger faces are landing on the street. NPR's Quil Lawrence visited a gathering of homeless veterans.
QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: Every summer for 25 years, the organization Veterans Village of San Diego has held an event called Stand Down. It's a tent city on the grounds of San Diego High School where for three days, homeless vets can sleep on dry cots and eat warm meals. Behind the tents, there's a huge American flag.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation under God...
LAWRENCE: Even with the noise from San Diego's airport, the tent city offers a calm, safe sanctuary from the streets. A thousand people showed up this year, most of them Vietnam vets, but also some younger faces.
JOSHUA: I had my apartment up until 2011.
LAWRENCE: Joshua, a 28-year-old Navy vet, asked not to give his last name because of the stigma of being homeless.
JOSHUA: And then couldn't keep up with the rent. I mean, I wasn't making enough to keep up with the rent, so I did a little couch surfing and then I ended up on the streets for a while.
LAWRENCE: There are lots of reasons why people who have had a successful career in the military can end up on the street. Too little savings, not enough civilian job skills, no civilian license for the skills they do have, no family to fall back on. In Joshua's case, military life offered structure and support.
JOSHUA: You know, for the past eight years, all I knew was military.
LAWRENCE: What were the things about the civilian world that just were hard to do after military?
JOSHUA: It was a total life change, and I was like, I don't understand, like, I, you know, served, I have all these, you know, skills and - but nobody is willing to hire me.
LAWRENCE: Joshua hit the bottle and wound up sleeping rough. Now he's getting help, living full time at the residential program run by Veterans Village. He's hoping to go to school in the fall. The VA estimates about 67,000 veterans are homeless. A $100 million program was just announced to deal with the problem. Most vets coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan do just fine.
At this summer's Stand Down weekend, there were more young vets volunteering to help than showing up to get help. Mike Judd did two tours in Iraq. He works at Veterans Village. He says he saw this problem coming.
MIKE JUDD: They spend months, years in combat, in military bases, in barracks, what have you, and then they're given like a week to become a civilian.
LAWRENCE: The idea of Stand Down is to offer veterans a way in one weekend to clear out all the obstacles to a fresh start.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Alpha, alpha, bravo and bravo, bravo.
LAWRENCE: The PA system calls everyone up in turns to get free eyeglasses, medical checks, meals, showers, new clothes. There's an open air court in session with a judge and pro bono lawyers to clear up outstanding fines and warrants. For the young guys, that's mostly drunk driving.
PAUL: I had a DUI, and I took care of that.
LAWRENCE: That's a former Marine named Paul. He also wouldn't give his last name.
PAUL: And then I got another one, another DUI, and I had a loaded firearm in the vehicle so the police didn't appreciate that very much. So that's why I'm here right now.
LAWRENCE: A judge told him to enroll in the Veterans Village residential program or go to prison, so Paul is at the Stand Down Weekend to apply for a bunk in the full-time program. Paul blames his drinking on post-traumatic stress from two combat tours in Iraq, but he admits he misses the thing that traumatized him.
PAUL: You can't get quite that rush or feeling on the edge that you do from combat. It sounds kind of twisted in a way, but I enjoyed it very much, save the fact that I lost some friends and a lot of my friends got, you know, maimed. But, you know, if I could, I'd go back right now, so...
LAWRENCE: But Iraq is over. When he gets through rehab at Veterans Village, he's going to have to live in the civilian world, which he still can't relate to.
PAUL: You have a military at war and a nation at the mall. I mean, what is on peoples' priorities especially in my age bracket? You know, all they care about is Facebook, you know, the Kardashians, you know, pop culture, their iPhone.
LAWRENCE: At the end of the Stand Down weekend, Paul did land a space at Veterans Village San Diego. After about a year there, he may still not relate to the crowds at the mall, but he may figure out a way to deal with them. Quil Lawrence, NPR News.
CORNISH: And you can see photos of veterans at the San Diego Stand Down event at npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.