Rodolfo Skeete, a former Army paratrooper, vividly recalls the second time Uncle Sam came looking for him.
Last April, Skeete, 51, jobless and nursing an injured leg, had spent his last $10 to rent a room at the Weingart Center downtown to avoid being mugged on Skid Row, where, homeless, he had spent three months. At the center, a social worker from the West Los Angeles Veterans Administration Medical Center in Westwood approached Skeete and offered him a chance to participate in a new rehabilitation program for the homeless.
"I got lucky, man. It seemed God put his hand on me and sent that guy there," Skeete said.
Thus, Skeete became one of the first participants in an 8-month-old program in which social workers comb the streets of the county looking for homeless veterans.
The $15-million program, operated at 20 sites nationwide, provides medical and psychological treatment for homeless veterans, who are estimated to make up between 18% and 30% of the homeless in the United States. The Westwood facility, the only VA facility in Southern California offering the program, houses 29 veterans who live in rooms similar to college dormitories. The program also offers occupational training to aid veterans in their return to the mainstream.
Unaware of Available Help
Westwood program coordinator Betsy Hardie said Congress created the program when surveys showed that a large number of veterans are living on the streets and need help, but are either unaware of the benefits available or unable to get help because of physical or mental problems.
As a result, social workers search for homeless veterans at various Westside locations, at the Weingart Center and at the Long Beach VA Medical Center. "Rather than veterans coming to our front door or out of a hospital bed, we are now looking for them," Hardie said.
The program has not yet returned any homeless veterans to a more traditional life; there has not been enough time for them to complete therapy and training. Nancy Sadler, nurse facilitator for the program, said recovery usually takes at least eight months. But the indications look promising enough that Hardie expects to get money for an additional 35 beds next year.
A race-track employee, Skeete became homeless after he aggravated a leg injury he received in a parachute jump while stationed in Germany in the early 1960s. Unable to work, he took disability pay until it ran out. Then, earlier this year, he went on the street and began begging for money. He points to the scar on his head where a crazed man on Skid Row hit him with a tire iron.
'I Was Getting Depressed'
"I was getting pretty depressed. I never considered suicide, but I was pretty depressed," Skeete said.
At the Westwood hospital, doctors operated on his leg. After he completes physical therapy, Skeete said, he hopes to return to work.
VA social worker Margaret Ronan said that finding homeless veterans like Skeete is no challenge. "We knew that wherever there were homeless, there are going to be veterans," she said.
The challenge comes in breaking through the veterans' distrust. "I've found they'll be rather frank. They felt in the past they'd trusted or reached out--even to the VA--and they weren't helped," she said.
Social workers maintain a regular presence at agencies that serve the homeless, to build up a rapport with the veterans so they will accept help, she said.
One veteran, John Paul Jones, 40, said he tried for many years to get treatment for his legs at the Long Beach Veterans Administration Medical Center while he was living next to a dumpster across the street from the hospital. He said he ran into a wall of medical bureaucracy, and that the Westwood program is a welcome change.
At the Westwood program, Jones said, he has received clean clothes, a place to stay and the respect and support he has needed for years. When hungry previously, he said, the VA workers told him, " 'Go down to the mission.' Hell, if you go to the mission in Long Beach, you're taking your life into your own hands. I've seen people stabbed right in the back there."
For Clifton Heffner, 34, who was drinking more than a fifth of vodka each day and sleeping on Santa Monica beach "or anywhere I passed out," if it weren't for the Westwood program, "I would still be on the beach."