Monday, March 4th, 2013
“You know the expression ‘never leave the fallen behind’? Homelessness is the equivalent of leaving a buddy on the battlefield. They’re heroes in the shadows.” So says Joe Leal, founder of the Vet Hunters Project, a group whose mission is to track down and help homeless comrades. Leal is an Iraq-war veteran and a reservist with the 115th Combat Service Support Battalion in South El Monte, a city outside Los Angeles, California.
A recent profile of the organization in the New York Times ”At War” blog by Patricia Leigh Brown highlights the stark realities that many veterans face when they leave the service—and ways the Vet Hunters Project is providing a helping hand:
The group, which takes an aggressive “911 attitude” to homelessness, fans out to America’s forgotten places — bridge underpasses, dry river beds, bus stop shelters, even the concrete pads of subdivision houses that were never built. Started in 2010, the “vetwork,” as Mr. Leal likes to call it, now has 20 chapters around the country, with 113 active volunteers in California alone, who subsidize the work out of their own pockets. . . . Among the ranks of the project’s volunteers are military families with spare housing and deployed soldiers who make their empty homes available to homeless vets while they are away. . . .
Although the project encourages homeless veterans to seek help with the Department of Veterans Affairs, it can act on a moment’s notice, Mr. Leal said, because he and his cohorts have established relationships with city and county agencies serving the homeless as well as community organizations.
When the husband of one of their clients, Monica Figueroa, returned from multiple deployments, including Afghanistan and two tours in Iraq, the couple wound up homeless, living with their son amid oil and solvents in an auto-body shop owned by his family. They called Mr. Leal, who found them an apartment through Inland Temporary Homes, a community organization in San Bernardino that provides temporary housing and support services for homeless families.
First Sgt. Steve Kreider, now a reserve adviser stationed at the Middletown, Conn., Reserve Center, was one the project’s first volunteers. He participated in a cross-country bike ride in 2011 that was a fact-finding mission and an effort to raise public awareness. “That really opened up our eyes,” Sergeant Kreider said. “You think this only happens in New York or Los Angeles. But when you get to Kansas and see a homeless vet, you realize ‘holy moly,’ this is a bigger problem. It’s a travesty.” . . .
Thus far, the project is financed by the volunteers themselves, operating on a budget of some $50,000. Mr. Leal has about 2,000 volunteers and counting, enlisting even nonveterans living in homeless encampments in the cause. The group will sometimes intervene with car payments, traffic tickets, medication and other aspects of daily life that can sometimes become tipping points into homelessness.
“We don’t accept defeat, ma’am,” he explained after a characteristically long day in the field. “That’s not an option.”