After spending a few years on and off the streets, Gordon Fowler appreciates the little things about the veterans dorm at the Tacoma Rescue Mission, where he’s been sleeping for the past two months.
It’s a clean place where the Navy veteran can keep his belongings during the day without worrying that someone will swipe them. He gets a little personal guidance from a retired Navy captain who’s coaching him on how to get back into an apartment.
And it’s a far calmer scene than the open rooms where the Rescue Mission shelters as many people as it can fit on the coldest nights of the year.
“Vets have respect; they show respect. Vets respect each other,” said Fowler, 73.
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He’s one of a handful of homeless veterans who are using a revived program for former military service members at the Rescue Mission to steady themselves while they look for work or sign up for long-term benefits they earned while serving in the armed forces.
They commit themselves to volunteering 20 hours a week, and in return, they get a small place of their own in a room modeled after a military barracks.
It’s not much, but it gives the veterans a start in climbing out of homelessness.
“It provides a really safe place for veterans to sit down and talk about what’s on their mind and then allow us to point them in the direction of the help they need,” said Larry Geringer of Gig Harbor, a retired Air Force major and Vietnam veteran who volunteers at the mission.
Geringer and several Rescue Mission board members want to expand the program to care for more veterans with urgent housing needs. They’ve begun building the framework for a nonprofit called Puget Sound Veterans Hope Center and are working with lawmakers to find a space.
The Rescue Mission estimates it houses 30 to 40 veterans among the 200 or so people it can squeeze into the shelter on bad-weather days.
It’s a frustratingly persistent number despite the millions of dollars in grants the Department of Veterans Affairs has been sending to Pierce County to fight homelessness among veterans, advocates say.
Much of that money goes to efforts by Catholic Community Services and the nonprofit Metropolitan Development Council to give housing vouchers to veterans or to help them pay the upfront costs of a rental. Those organizations have reported helping hundreds of veterans, but in many cases, it can take weeks or months to get someone properly enrolled in VA-funded programs.
“There’s a strong need for the short-term housing,” said Mary Forbes, assistant director for veterans services at the Washington state Department of Veterans Affairs. “There’s nowhere to go. It’s very hard, especially for someone with children.”
That’s where the Rescue Mission in downtown Tacoma can help out. Geringer and retired Navy Capt. Denny Sapp helped re-open the mission’s veteran’s resource center last summer after the program had taken a short hiatus.
“This is working,” Sapp said. “If they want to make a turnaround, we can help them.”
The VA under former Director Eric Shinseki launched an aggressive campaign to reduce homelessness among veterans. The Department of Housing and Urban Development reported in August that those efforts paid off, curbing homelessness among former service members by one-third.
In real numbers, that meant fewer than 50,000 veterans were on U.S. streets last year, down from more than 74,000 in 2010.
“So long as there remains a veteran living on our streets, we have more work to do,” new VA Secretary Robert McDonald said in August in announcing the HUD report.
Some veterans interviewed at the Rescue Mission this week have struggled with homelessness for years. Fowler has been staying with friends or living on the streets even though he has some retirement and Social Security income that could help him find a permanent place to live.
The shelter is a good place for him to collect his thoughts and stay away from trouble, he said.
“You keep busy, and good things happen,” he said.
Others were surprised to find themselves suddenly homeless after leaving the military. One veteran who visited the Rescue Mission for the first time this week said he spent the past two years living with friends since he left the Army at Joint Base Lewis-McChord. His buddy moved out of state, leaving the veteran without a place to go.
The 32-year-old former soldier said he fought in Iraq and Afghanistan as an infantryman, most recently in 2010 with a JBLM Stryker brigade. He said he has not been able to find steady work because he doesn’t own a car, and the employers who were interested in him required him to have access to one.
“I’m trying to get a job, get on my feet. Then I’ll be happy,” said the veteran, who did not want his name published because he’s looking for work.
A 66-year-old Vietnam-era veteran at the shelter said he lost his savings just before he planned to retire in 2013. The veteran, Tom, has been hiding his circumstances from his son.
“This has humbled me,” he said.
Tom, who also did not want to use his full name in this story because he’s looking for work, has some extra responsibility in the shelter. He’s the “sergeant at arms” for the veterans program, which means he has to keep track of his peers and help them meet their appointments.
He said the veterans resources at the center have helped him while he looks for work and saves for a new apartment.
“This has been a godsend. This is a great place,” he said.