Twenty-three years ago, I started as the leader of a small homeless agency in West Los Angeles. Back then we used to be a 90-days program – within that small span of time, we would help someone who was homeless get a job, save money, move into an apartment and get back on their feet.
Back then, people who became homeless were just down on their luck.
Back then, our staff were peer counselors. Many, if not most, were high school educated. There wasn’t a need for clinicians with advanced degrees. A good heart-to-heart talk was enough. Boy, were they good at relating to people, and inspiring them to change and improve their lives. We called it “a hand up, not a hand out.”
Today, homelessness is so different. It consists of people living on the streets for a long time, struggling with substance abuse, serious mental health issues, or physical and other disabilities. Today, a “hand up” is not enough. We have to surround people with clinical support and professionals who can diagnose and treat. Not simply inspire.
One of the most difficult parts of my tenure here at PATH is seeing the rise in veterans living on our streets. During the month of November when veterans are highlighted on Veterans Day, I am always reminded of the people who fought for our country who are now living without a home.
It has been difficult, not simply because veteran homelessness is a moral failure for our country, but because caring for veterans is a deeply personal issue for my family and I. The failure of caring for our veterans does not just affect a veteran, but it affects the whole family.
Like my family.
My father was in the Army infantry during World War II. I remember when my siblings and I were young, he never talked about his battlefield experience. He was a very outgoing, talkative, social man. He would joke with waitresses and ask how sales clerks were doing. He talked with strangers like they were his close friends. So his silence on his war-days was peculiar.
I could never figure out his silence to the war until I became an adult running PATH.
As we know, for many young soldiers drafted into combat — some still in their teens — the sights, sounds and smells of organized death were overwhelmingly traumatic. They came home as different people, struggling with demonic memories.
Today, the scientific term is Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), an official diagnosis that became recognized in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Before then, there was no name. But for my dad, the ghosts of war did not disappear after his tour of duty in Europe and a flight home on a DC-3 propeller plane. The images of death did not dissipate simply because there was no scientific name for them.
Although my father earned a doctorate degree and became a professor of physics, and even worked on top-secret military projects while he was teaching, I saw how those phantoms of death haunted him until the day he passed away in a veterans retirement home in San Diego.
When I was a child, I would sometimes see him stare out into the sky, like he was transporting himself into a world gone by. He would tell me he was thinking about some physics equation. But I think he was fighting memories of war.
I know our PATH clinicians see that same faraway look when they are working with veterans who are homeless. That stare into the abyss.
It is incredibly hard to keep a job, maintain a healthy marriage or regularly pay rent, when the struggle to maintain a housed lifestyle also consists of battling flashbacks of controlled killing.
My father also struggled with numerous marriages, addictions and keeping a stable life. He never became homeless, but his internal struggles affected the people who were close to him.
The community-based organizations that are helping people who are homeless, including veterans, are the moral threads of a society that is so broken it allows our former warriors to live like animals on our streets.
I try to remind our frontline staff that they are not only working with one individual, but may well be transforming a whole family that is relationally connected to that individual.
Like my family.
San José Spotlight columnist Joel John Roberts is the CEO of PATH, a statewide homeless services and housing development agency that provides services and housing in San José. Joel is also a Board member of Silicon Valley’s Destination: Home. His columns appear every fourth Monday of the month.