The mantras we intone about military veterans roll off our tongues with ease.
By MARY SANCHEZ
The Kansas City Star
Honor their service. Never forget. Gracious words uttered for those who made the ultimate sacrifice.
But what if the veteran is estranged from family, addicted or unemployed, scraping by with some work but living in her car? What if he is the scraggly person holding a Homeless Vet sign at the freeway ramp?
Kansas City is beginning to answer those questions laudably. And advocates here are expanding the conversation to include homeless people who arent veterans, people less likely to receive sympathy.
Poverty, we should remember, isnt a crime.
By fall 2013, Kansas City is slated to have the beginnings of a campus for homeless veterans, the first phase being 58 one-bedroom apartments. The land, 22 acres near the Veterans Hospital off Van Brunt Boulevard, should be secured within the next several weeks. The project already has state tax credits as well as funding from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
The vision is to create an area where honorably discharged veterans can live in a supportive community and get the help they need, whether its for their physical or mental health, job training or life skills.
The campus the St. Michaels Veterans Center is a project of the Bishop Boland Institute for Housing and Community Development, a nonprofit associated with Catholic Charities of St. Joseph-Kansas City.
Catholic Charities is also helping homeless disabled veterans through another new program that puts them in permanent housing scattered around the city. Federal funding will allow for eight single former soldiers and eight with families. Some will be women. Female soldiers, returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, are increasingly showing up among the homeless. Many have children to support.
Scott Boyer was the first person helped. He recently moved into a Midtown apartment.
I have a place to be, the Vietnam-era veteran said. Im getting my life back.
Boyer, 55, is gaunt, 30 pounds lighter than when he started chemotherapy and radiation for stage 3 lung cancer. Hes been sober for nearly a year.
When Boyer was 17 he joined the Air Force right after graduating high school in Tonganoxie, Kan. The Vietnam War was nearing its end. His job became escorting the returning troops.
It was a way for me to ensure that our boys did get home, whether they were dead or alive, he said. It was my little part.
His furnishings now a chair, a couch, a TV, a clock, and a few knickknacks for the wall were donated through Maj-R Thrift. Its a far cry from the tent he lived in for four and a half months or the alcohol treatment facilities he entered with the help of the VA.
Thats a key point. Both St. Michaels and the permanent housing program are a significant step away from the idea of warehousing people overnight in a shelter, offering them a soup line.
This is the proverbial offer of a hand up, not a handout. Its what most homeless want.
But Joe General Public doesnt want to see this area of society, Boyer said. People dont want to admit that they live in a community or in a country that allows people, children even, to be in this situation.
He says the image of a panhandler takes up too much of the general publics view of the homeless. Part of the problem, both Boyer and social workers say, is the economy, the lack of jobs and cuts to social programs that had aided people before they became homeless.
He doesnt dodge his failings. I put myself straight in the situation by my alcoholism. It was my choice, nobody elses.
But Boyer sees, especially with new veterans, the tenuous grasp on housing, a job, transportation that many people have in their lives. Invisible, he says, are the honest homeless who truly want, need and desire the help, but dont have it.
This years annual count of homeless in Kansas City gave data to his contention. There was a 33 percent spike in people who attributed their homelessness to a catastrophic illness.
Homelessness is a serious symptom of chronic poverty, said Vickie Riddle, executive director of the Homeless Services Coalition.
That will be the view of many attending the National Health Care for the Homeless Council meeting in Kansas City through Friday at the Sheraton Kansas City at Crown Center.
Boyer, who worked most of his life in ethanol processing plants, is a father of five and grandfather to seven with another on the way.
But by the time doctors removed a portion of his lung last year due to damage caused by atypical tuberculosis, only an aunt came to visit. A sister might have come, but had to work. His mother, who lives in south Kansas City, was too ill.
Reconnecting with family is part of his treatment, taking responsibility for his life.
The planned veterans projects in Kansas City are part of a federal emphasis on the needs of returning military.
Advocates hope people will begin to treat all homeless people with the concern and understanding that homeless veterans are beginning to feel.
Its been said that among Vietnam veterans greatest legacies is the dignity their experience offers to soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. Never again will the nation confuse hatred for the war with hatred for the soldier.
Ive been spit on and told that people hate my guts, Boyer said. It was so much of a political war. Realistically, there was no purpose for us to be over there.
Nobody talked about PTSD when Vietnam veterans returned. People just said a solider was shell-shocked. Then everyone expected him to just get over it.
Now we understand better.
War is easier to understand, and for sure it puts a person in an unnatural environment and creates significant stressors, said Susan Engel, Catholic Charities director of housing and community development. But there are other things that cause PTSD as well.
Trauma-based outreach is leading now to an understanding of how extreme circumstances can rewire people, disrupting their ability to function. Consider the experience of growing up with alcoholic parents, being homeless as a child or being sexually abused.
Boyers grandparents raised him.
Since gaining sobriety, hes been diagnosed with major depression, anxiety, insomnia, and heart and blood pressure problems.
He said beer drinking didnt become a problem until after his divorce from his high school sweetheart in the late 90s. They married after he returned from the service.
Boyer stood out to social workers with Catholic Charities because he is dedicated to his own recovery. Hes also trying to help new veterans, volunteering to feed the homeless once a week.
Boyer is praying for a miracle, but believes he may die from the cancer within two years.
To be honest, its a battle every day, he said. But I refuse to die a drunk.
To reach Mary Sanchez, call 816-234-4752 or send email to email@example.com.