Raymond Houser struggles with trust issues.
Basic human interaction remains a challenge—so working in small groups during his college physics labs? Forget it. When push comes to shove, Houser, who suffers from post traumatic stress disorder, says he gets the literal urge to shove.
"I get that little itch between my shoulder blades, you know?" Houser asks, rhetorically.
Though he comes across as considerate, polite and pleasant, this is something the 35-year-old Afghanistan veteran has had to work at.
He's gotten help from a few organizations in Central Oregon that make up the backbone of veterans' assistance here. Both a local Veterans Affairs clinic and a larger office for the Central Oregon Veterans Outreach mean vets like Houser will now have more access to services.
But they have a lot of work to do. Central Oregon is sixth in the nation for rural homeless vets, according to COVO executive director Chuck Hemingway. And with winter upon us he says the organization is flooded with vets, particularly Vietnam-era vets, who are faced with mounting health problems, no work and no place to live.
To combat the deep economic, social and physical challenges veterans face, these groups will also have to put to rest some negative assumptions about veteran services and their own financial issues.
In Houser's case, he moved to Bend just over a year ago after 10 months of service in Afghanistan. While there, he experienced all the terrible things that you might expect would come with living in a war zone.
Like a number of the vets who are now returning home from combat, Houser lacked direction. Once in Bend, Houser said he didn't know what to do with himself so he "turtled-up" and left his rented apartment only if he had to. He ordered a lot of pizza and didn't talk to anyone. After seven months though, with his money running low and an eviction pending, Houser says he was forced to make a move.
"It was probably the best thing that happened to me," Houser says.
The move helped him connect with COVO. After months without a place to call his own, COVO, which works closely with the Veterans Affairs office in Portland, had Houser in a veteran-only transitional home.
It's just one of the services provided by the organization that is coming to define assistance to veterans in Central Oregon.
Groups like COVO and the Veteran's Affairs clinic see mostly men like Houser who are veterans of wars in Vietnam, the Persian Gulf, Iraq and Afghanistan, but staff are seeing something else, too—an uptick in the number of homeless female vets.
In short, no group of veterans is off the list of those in need.
At COVO's recent "stand down," a one-day event that offers food, clothing, health screenings and other services, the agency served 83 people. Of those who received services, 14 were women. In 2011, COVO saw only three female vets.
"It's a staggering number and should be a serious issue for all communities in Central Oregon," says COVO's Scott Loxley.
When it comes to the big picture, Hemingway figures the total number of homeless vets in the tri-county area is between 220 and 260.
One-night counts, which are done in Central Oregon every January, tend to be artificial undercounts, explains Hemingway. That said, the national one-night count in 2011 pegged the number of homeless veterans throughout the U.S. at 67,495.
Overall, COVO officials expect homelessness to continue to rise among all populations. Loxley says that in Central Oregon, there's a sizeable disparity between wages and the cost of living, and in a depressed economy where foreclosures are common and job openings are not, a number of vets are left without permanent housing.
"I don't expect it to decrease and I don't expect the economy to get better," Loxley says.
A common practice among those without permanent housing is "house surfing," or staying with friends, families or acquaintances. But that's hardly a viable alternative.
Among the house surfers is a population that has Loxley truly worried—GWAT vets, or those who participated in the global war on terror. The inevitable tide of GWAT vets will soon trickle into, or flood, the COVO offices.
Darin Darlington, COVO's employment outreach coordinator, agrees.
"Initially, you don't see them [GWAT vets] because they're younger guys," Darlington says. "There's a lapse. They're young and don't realize they have PTSD."
Whether the amount of services required by GWAT vets proves to be a trickle or a flood remains to be seen, though Loxley's hopes are buoyed by today's more proactive VA.
"It's not the VA of my father's era," says Loxley. "They understand the issues: TBI (traumatic brain injury), PTSD and sexual trauma."
GWAT vets aside, it's still the male Vietnam-era vets that COVO serves the most.
"They're hitting retirement age and can't sustain their lifestyle," Loxley says. "It's difficult for them to compete with the numbers [of the unemployed] out there."
Just last week Darlington met with a 62-year-old vet who recently went through a divorce, lost his house and is in failing health. Now, the former cabinetmaker is living out of his pickup truck and trying to live off of his meager social security check.
"That's real, that happened today," Darlington says.
Also real are veteran's benefits, or the lack thereof. A common misconception surrounding veterans is that benefits are automatic.
Raymond Houser is proof that they aren't. Houser's service ended when he was suddenly and swiftly medevaced out of Afghanistan, for reasons he wouldn't discuss. He later received a "general discharge under honorable conditions." Once home, though, the army saddled Houser with a $10,000 bill for his missing equipment—even though Houser says his medical emergency prevented him from gathering up his gear.
So instead of compensation, Houser was stuck paying for his army-issue vest, sunglasses, boots and more.
"Things get real hazy," Houser says of armed forces' benefits. As we sit in the tidy living room of his grant-funded home he elaborates, "Because it's a general discharge most people didn't want to mess with it."
COVO proved to be an exception. The local agency helped get Raymond into the transitional home, Home of the Brave, and helped him get a disability check. Aside from his PTSD, Houser suffers from back, knee and foot ailments.
But outreach can only stretch so far and there are still those who slip between the cracks.
Patrick, a two-tour Desert Storm vet, has been living in a tent in the Central Oregon woods for months, but he's been without a home for much longer. Such accommodations only make the pain from his arthritis worse. Some days Patrick says he can't leave his tent and must spend the whole day lying down.
I met Patrick, who preferred we omit his last name from this story, at his tent on a blustery and soggy day last week. On this day, he was up and moving around, albeit slowly.
A large man with a soft voice and clear eyes, he moves with a stiffness that suggests the hinges of his joints have ceased to function. Despite his pains, he was trying to dry out his gear after the night's frigid rains left his possessions soaked.
"I had some chicken going [last night] but the rain snuffed it out," Patrick says. "Buckshot got himself a treat."
Buckshot is Patrick's only companion, a beautiful and energetic six-year-old red heeler who Patrick has had since the dog was only days old.
While we take turns tossing a tattered ball with Buckshot, Patrick tells me his story. He outlines how, while in the Navy, he lumbered up and down flights of stairs with hefty, oversized equipment. He ran generators on the U.S.S. Fairfax County, a tank landing ship, he explains. It was physical work on a rocking boat and Patrick thinks that's where his arthritis began.
As Patrick and I talk in front of his sagging, camouflaged tent, it's clear that his situation is very real.
As we played with his dog, Patrick stubbed his toe on one of the many rocks around his camp and I readied myself to catch him. I thought he was going to fall over—that's how poor his movement is. His condition makes most jobs infeasible. A former taxidermist, Patrick lost his job when the economy tanked, which was right around the same time that his arthritis became unbearable.
"It sucks," Patrick says, staring off into the distance. Amazingly, he says he's not bitter, despite the fact that most of the systems put into place by a country he committed almost three years of his life to protecting, failed him.
But help is on the way. Because Patrick has been proactive in working with COVO, Jesse Higgins, COVO's homeless outreach coordinator, thinks that her agency will get Patrick into temporary housing as soon as this week.
Patrick only recently found COVO, but he's already begun utilizing their rapid re-housing services. Since COVO moved into a larger facility two weeks ago, the organization is able to house more agencies and store much more gear. And for that, Higgins is thankful.
"We couldn't fit in the space," says Higgins, a tall and cheerful woman who is working on her master's in social work. She's energetic and no-nonsense—necessary traits for a person in her position.
Higgins describes how cramped COVO's previous location on NW Lafayette Avenue was and how much better their new spot is. COVO is now in multiple buildings on Franklin Avenue and has more than doubled its previous square footage.
Once per week, Higgins makes the rounds to known homeless camps where she distributes food, water, propane, jackets, socks and gloves to vets. She also hands out bus passes and provides cell phone availability and medical kits. Higgins is who introduced me to Patrick. When, for my benefit, she tried to contact another homeless vet for this story she received a spirited reply.
"Hell no! That's bullshit!" said the fellow on the other end of the phone. Higgins took the news in stride but appears sad when she relays the man's story—he's a lifer among the homeless camps.
"For him it's become a lifestyle. I hate to say it, but he'll probably die out there," says Higgins.
COVO itself almost took a turn for the worse in recent years.
According to Hemingway, COVO almost folded in 2009 after a former executive director drove the agency toward bankruptcy. With COVO's credibility flagging and services floundering, Hemingway took the reins in 2009 and has served as executive director ever since.
Leaders of the nonprofit have endeavored to build strong ties with other local agencies, like NeighborImpact, as well as temporary shelters Shepherd's House and Bethlehem Inn. Hemingway says COVO is aware of the "handout" criticisms and, with their "hand-up" motto, is dispelling myths that their services are those of an enabler.
Under Hemingway's leadership, COVO has become an archetype for other agencies in Oregon and across the U.S., he says.
"A state officer from California called and wanted to implement a similar state-wide program," Hemingway says. COVO has fielded similar calls from Portland, St. Louis, and L.A.
One of those model units is Houser's transitional house, Home of the Brave, one of four properties that COVO operates. The local nonprofit also offers counseling and claims services and reintegration programs. And, now that they have the space, COVO is able to run the Homeless Veterans' Reintegration Program (HVRP) as well as the government-funded Supportive Services for Veteran Families (SSVF) program, from within their own offices. COVO received the SSVF grant in October.
"It's huge," says Loxley of the SSVF grant, which will allow COVO to place homeless vets and their families in a home. Loxely says COVO's new larger facility also allows them to offer emergency housing.
"Nights happen, Christmas night, where it's cold and families need a place to stay," says Loxley. "We can offer temporary housing until we can get them into transitional housing."
President Obama's Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki set the ambitious goal of eradicating homelessness among veterans by 2015.
And while COVO officials are doubtful as to whether the national goal can be met, COVO, along with the continuum of care offered by NeighborImpact and other area agencies, are taking up the challenge in Central Oregon.
For Houser, the young Afghanistan vet, the future holds promise. He's been admitted to a bachelor's program at University of Oregon and is moving to Eugene in January. With COVO's help, Houser applied for and received housing assistance. He even won financial aid from the University.
"The COVO caseworker did miracles for me," Houser says before turning reflective. "It's not about getting freebies. For anyone who wants to get out of their position there are ways to get out."