See them laughing, the old men, leaning in together during a holiday meal?
They’re off the list — the list of homeless military veterans still unsheltered in Kansas City.
That’s the senior statesman at St. Michael’s Veterans Center, 72-year-old Carl “Grumpy” Yonkers.
Beside him is 66-year-old Cedrick Von Pumphrey, he who can now declare, “I do absolutely nothing and I’m good at it.”
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They know the thin line between lives in balance and lives undone.
As many as 1,600 veterans in the metro area are under housing stress, either homeless or in temporary or shared homes. In Jackson County alone at the start of 2015, service agencies counted 149 known-by-name homeless veterans on the streets, in homeless camps or in emergency shelters.
That’s down from 315 at the start of 2011 in the annual count by the Homeless Services Coalition of Greater Kansas City.
And service agencies are trying to double down and rescue more veterans from the hard roads they are traveling.
The affectionately grumpy Yonkers describes the old Yonkers as if he were someone else — angry at the world from the moment he got off a plane at the Seattle-Tacoma airport in 1969 after nine years of service in the Army in the withering days of Vietnam.
He was looking for a fight, stepping out in his Army uniform, “which I was proud of,” he said.
Sure enough, someone threw a tomato at him.
“I went off,” he said. “I hurt this person. Got arrested. … I didn’t give a damn.”
There were years of anger. Difficult relationships. Moving through one job after another. Drinking.
Pumphrey finished his Army service in 1972 and made his way with a career in social work. But within the last few years he had exhausted resources caring for his mother, then “my car caught on fire, my pipes burst, the furnace threw craps …”
To arrive at this point in life, like Yonkers and many men and women, knocking on the door of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs for help, Pumphrey said, “was the most humbling experience in my life, ever.”
“It’s a blessing”
That’s 52-year-old Army veteran Lisa Grigsby slinging joke after joke across the table from Yonkers and Pumphrey.
She made it here, too, harbored in St. Michael’s, the grandest expression yet in Kansas City’s efforts to end homelessness among veterans.
“It’s a blessing,” she said. It’s an end to fear.
This is permanent housing, an often elusive opportunity for veterans climbing out of homelessness.
Not enough landlords take a chance and accept the federal and city housing subsidies available to them for leasing to veterans in need. A letter from Kansas City Mayor Sly James distributed to landlords in December urged more support, saying, “We currently have 93 veterans right now that need housing and we need your help.”
Permanent housing relieves the pressure on an earnest network of shelters across the area, those specifically for veterans and those for all homeless people, where managers say 10 percent to 15 percent of the men they see are veterans.
“I don’t know where we would be if not for here,” said Grigsby, who lives at St. Michael’s with her husband, George, also a veteran, whom she has supported through his fight with mental illness since they both were in the service in the early 1980s.
She’d paid the bills with waitress jobs as they raised four children. But then came that last layoff after which she couldn’t get hired again. Then came eviction and a scramble for refuge at reStart’s emergency shelter downtown.
Having their own apartment at St. Michael’s means feeling at home, Grigsby said. It means always being somewhere their children and grandchildren can come to visit.
A collaboration among Catholic Charities, the Yarco Co., veterans advocate Art Fillmore, city and federal resources and other players made possible the $11.4 million St. Michael’s home at 3838 Chelsea Drive, just southeast of the VA Medical Center.
St. Michael’s made permanent homes for 58 veterans and recently broke ground on an expansion that will more than double its services.
There is momentum in Kansas City that has to carry on, Yonkers said.
Changes have to come, he said, “not only for the homeless veterans but the people out there who see that homeless veteran, to give him a helping hand, give him a kick to get him started.”
About 3:30 every afternoon, the men seeking shelter and help for the night begin lining up at the Kansas City Rescue Mission.
Go down the row and you’ll find veterans, said mission counselor Glen McKnight. Usually at least 10 out of 100, sometimes 15 to 20.
Many of them are veterans who were not honorably discharged and don’t have access to VA benefits.
“A lot of them are still paying the price (of war),” McKnight said. “There is not much lower you can go, except for being in jail or dead.”
At the hardest level, some homeless veterans “have surrendered to that hopelessness,” he said. “There is a lot of mental illness, a whole different mindset, a lot of loners and isolators who don’t want to be a part of something.”
At City Union Mission, Cord Cochran pulled one recent night’s count, a typical night. Of 237 men who came in, 31 identified as military veterans.
“We’re seeing cases of post-traumatic stress,” he said. “Anger outbursts or staying away from everybody. Some will have insomnia. Some will get up and leave the mission all of a sudden.”
Some don’t believe they have any problems, he said. Some don’t want any help. “This is comfortable to them.”
Cochran, the director of men’s ministries at City Union, can see that the intensified community focus on veterans is rescuing more from homelessness.
McKnight sees it, too, at the rescue mission. When he was volunteering at the mission in the 1990s, he said, he remembers watching the men head to the annual Heart of America Stand Down for veterans.
That event, which for a day provides meals and connections to social services for veterans, revealed that easily half of the men in the shelter in those days were veterans, McKnight said.
No one knows the history and lessons of the Stand Down event better than Art Fillmore.
Hundreds of veterans have gotten services — meals, new clothes, financial and tax assistance or connections to housing.
“But it was just a Band-Aid,” said Fillmore, a Vietnam veteran and attorney who started Stand Down.
He’d returned from Vietnam shaken by all he’d seen and by the anger at home in America.
When his mother, an elementary school teacher, asked him to speak to her class, he wore civilian clothes into the school, changed into and out of his uniform in a school bathroom, then left in his civilian clothes.
All the pain he saw in fellow Vietnam vets, and then among the newer generations of Iraq and Afghanistan vets, needed more than Stand Down’s annual aid.
“Most of them were back on the street the next day,” he said.
While Fillmore talked to colleagues and agencies about trying to establish more permanent help for veterans, Mike Halterman, CEO of the Catholic Charities of Kansas City and St. Joseph, was doing the same.
In 2010 they met, and the complicated path toward creating St. Michael’s was underway.
“The vision was for a one-stop shop,” said the now-retired Halterman, a Vietnam vet. “Veterans could live there, get job training, medical services, counseling. We knew we wanted housing to be the anchor.”
No more bouncing shelter to shelter. No more getting caught in the whims of changing landlords or at the mercy of sudden unemployment.
Fillmore wanted a place where they could stay — forever if they needed to or wanted to.
Watch what comes by the end of March, says Sondra Robinson. There may well be zero homeless veterans in Kansas City by then.
Robinson is the Kansas City homeless program coordinator at the Department of Veterans Affairs.
The VA and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development are working with a network of local homeless service organizations to turn that annual point-in-time count of homeless veterans to zero.
The term, actually, is “functional zero,” because there are always homeless veterans who will move into or out of a community, she said.
But the aim is to have housing available for every one of them. And the end of March is their target.
They need to provide more rent assistance. They need more cooperating landlords on subsidized housing. But a change in approach, widespread among rescue and service providers, is paying dividends, Robinson said.
“It’s housing first,” she said. “For many years social work came with all kinds of rules — people had to be clean and sober and go through all kinds of red tape.”
Now the social services providers are more prone to secure housing and then work on any other concerns.
The veterans at St. Michael’s are thankful.
Dana Purnell, a 55-year-old Army veteran and aspiring minister, does not want to know the loneliness the former homeless here experience when “you’ve been put out of your house and you have no key” to anywhere else.
Reagan Roberts, a 38-year-old Navy veteran, was a welder in Mississippi Gulf Coast shipyards when the British Petroleum oil spill of 2010 wiped out his industry. He’s thankful not only for the apartment, but for the furnishings and pots and pans the center’s supporters supply.
And the camaraderie.
Randy Williams, a 52-year-old Navy veteran and out-of-work office clerk, tended his mother through her Parkinson’s disease until the end, then felt shamed when he had to seek shelter. “It’s a tough road to be on.”
“Each one here knows what you go through,” he said. “Each one knows how it is when your spirit is so low you don’t know where up is.”