Bob R. is a Veteran, a father, an animal lover, and a commercial vehicle driver—but for more than 30 years after his service, Bob struggled with homelessness.
He grew up in Maryland and joined the U.S. Army in the mid-1970s when he was 19 years old. He was deployed to Mannheim, Germany, where he served as a gunner in the mechanized infantry. When he returned home after two years of service, he struggled to hold a job.
"I was having a lot of problems. It seemed like I couldn't work inside, I was so used to being outside," he said. Bob worked at a cemetery, then as a handyman at the Hampton Veterans Affairs (VA) Medical Center in Virginia.
"I kept bouncing around, you know, finding jobs here and there," he said. Bob struggled with alcoholism and ended up on the street in Baltimore with his newborn daughter, whom he raised alone. They stayed with friends most nights, but sometimes ended up on the street in Baltimore and its suburbs.
No matter how difficult life became, Bob understood the importance of education. He sent his daughter to live with her godmother in Pennsylvania, where she could attend school consistently. Then Bob sought help from the Maryland Center for Veterans Education and Training—a nonprofit agency that provides comprehensive services to Veterans who are homeless—where he stayed for two years.
The facility's strict no-alcohol policy reminded Bob of boot camp. He regained the discipline that enabled him to earn a commercial driver's license. He got jobs driving for a beverage company and later for a carnival in Florida, but that new unstructured lifestyle soon gave way to drugs, drinking, and another period of homelessness.
With the help of community organizations in Baltimore, Bob began treatment for substance use and started seeing a mental health professional to treat his chronic depression that had never been diagnosed.
He calls the housing support program at Perry Point VA Medical Center a "miracle." There, he met a social worker who guided him through the application process for a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development-Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing voucher, a rental assistance program with supportive services.
"I’m very happy the VA’s been around. They put a roof over my head. If Veterans didn’t have the VA, there’d be a lot of Veterans out here in trouble."
Now Bob works in the kitchen at Perry Point VA Medical Center, serving other Veterans. He is saving to buy his own trailer and enjoys spending time with his pets and his girlfriend. His daughter is a registered nurse in the area.
Bobby H. joined the U.S. Air Force four days after earning his high school equivalency. He served for five years as an administration specialist beginning in the late 1970s, stationed much of the time in England. He enjoyed playing for the Air Force basketball team.
Bobby had been abused while in foster care as a child and first faced homelessness at age 17 before his service. After his time in the Air Force, Bobby returned to his hometown of Gary, Ind., to make amends with the people who had wronged him in the past. But Bobby continued to face hardship. After following an unsuccessful romantic relationship to California, he drifted in and out of abandoned homes while facing divorce, gang violence, health issues, and drug use.
When he had nowhere else to turn, Bobby found hope in the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).
"The [VA] liaison told me about the program, it was called New Directions," he said. The New Directions program is funded by VA's Grant and Per Diem Program that provides housing to Veterans while they cope with and overcome substance dependencies or mental health conditions. It was during his 18 months in the New Directions program that clinicians first diagnosed the post-traumatic stress disorder stemming from his childhood experiences.
He also joined the New Directions Veterans Choir, composed entirely of Veterans who used to be homeless. In 2010, the group performed on "America's Got Talent" and received a standing ovation during the nationwide broadcast.
Members of the choir act as advocates and living success stories for New Directions, Bobby explained.
"We go around and let other Veterans know that there's help, whether they have a substance abuse problem, alcohol problem, or whether it's mental," he said. "Don't give up."
Bobby receives a Section 8 housing voucher and completed a VA internship working with Veterans with disabilities. These experiences enabled him to work toward a bachelor's degree in business administration while the New Directions choir performs around the country.
Connie L. grew up in Potomac, Md. Knowing early in life that she wanted to serve her country, Connie celebrated her 17th birthday at boot camp in the late 1970s and spent the following four years in the U.S. Marine Corps. She began as a cook and later joined the criminal investigations division military police.
Connie served honorably at Camp Lejeune; U.S. Marine Corps Base, Quantico; and in the District of Columbia.
After leaving the military, Connie moved to New York where she married and had a daughter, along with starting a few successful business ventures. When she and her husband separated after a long-time marriage and her business ventures began to crumble, Connie began drinking to cope. She eventually found herself sleeping in hotels and one the streets in East Harlem, where she was mugged twice.
"Everything just fell apart," she said.
It was then that a friend suggested that Connie call the Perry Point Veterans Affairs (VA) Medical Center. She got bus fare from a VA health care office in New York and traveled to the Maryland facility.
At Perry Point's residential facility for Veterans struggling with homelessness, she regained her footing. She began treatment for bipolar disorder, stayed in drug-free housing, and enrolled in a program to treat post-traumatic stress disorder.
Connie received a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development-Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing (HUD-VASH) voucher, which allowed her to maintain her own permanent residence while she received mental health care and other supportive services. She advocates against the stigma that surrounds homelessness and mental illness among Veterans.
VA employees "will bend over backwards for you," she said, adding that Veterans who are homeless need to be willing to change their lifestyles and help themselves. "I couldn't have an apartment without the HUD-VASH program."
Seeking treatment at VA encouraged Connie to reconnect with her family. After a joyful Thanksgiving together, she feels she has regained their respect.
"My life is beyond my wildest dreams," she said. Connie has been sober for more than 10 years. She sponsors other recovering alcoholics as they go through treatment and volunteers to raise awareness about VA's women's health programs.
Ginny R. is one of 10 siblings who grew up in Mississippi. After finishing high school in the early 1980s in Michigan, she joined the U.S. Army with her two closest friends.
She served as a personnel records specialist in Germany for two years then joined the National Guard in Illinois. Unsure how to return to civilian life, she began to drink heavily.
"My issues started to pile up," she said. "Not talking about it and then trying to deal with it myself, it became overwhelming."
Ginny worked in food services at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) medical center in Detroit, but her drinking was still causing trouble. After a move to California, Ginny's substance use kept her from focusing on her education and job. She eventually became unemployed, incarcerated, and then homeless.
"Every time things got really rough, I didn't want my family to see me like this, because they're proud of me," she said. "I put them through a lot." Despite their insistence that she use willpower to overcome the urge to drink, Ginny felt her addiction was too strong.
"I've been in the military. I know willpower. I know what it takes. But that is not working," she said. "I felt myself going to that place, that dark place, that place of uncertainty, that place I don’t wish on anybody."
Then Ginny went to the West Los Angeles VA Medical Center, which coordinated rehabilitation housing and mental health consultations.
"Now I have tools. Now I understand," she said. "I know there are hundreds and thousands and maybe millions of people who’ve been where I've been. And they came through it."
Ginny also received a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development-Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing voucher, a rental assistance program with supportive services, which she said "honestly saved my life."
Her strong work ethic enabled her to become a radiology and imaging specialist for more than three years at a VA facility, where she plans to earn an X-ray operating certification. She enjoys doing community service.
"I realized, 'Wow, there's a place that I can go to when I need help to help me,'" she said. "All the things that I need, I have. I'm at peace."
Michelle O. came from a family of Army Veterans and spent 11 years in the Army Reserve, troubleshooting radios and navigational equipment. But when she left military service in the early 1990s, Michelle struggled with moving, a divorce, and alcoholism.
She moved to her brother's home in California to rebuild her life, but the city social scene fueled her alcoholism. Wanting to get her life on track, Michelle stayed for more than a year at the Bimini Recovery Center, a nonprofit agency that receives funding through the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Grant and Per Diem Program. The VA initiative funds community agencies that provide services and stable homes to Veterans who are homeless.
She left with a job and her own apartment, but was soon out of work and living on the street again. She spent six months in another Grant and Per Diem housing program for female Veterans before receiving a U.S Department of Housing and Urban Development-Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing voucher for the apartment she lives in now.
Michelle said her life turned around when she found out that there were services dedicated to helping Veterans. VA, she said, "gave me my life back."
"Veterans have different needs than the average person. We're conditioned to survive," she said. “But when you have programs that deal with Veterans on a regular basis, they can connect with the different problems that we have."
Michelle works at VA, first conducting outreach among Veterans who are homeless in West Los Angeles and now as a medical support assistant. She has been sober more than 10 years and received her bachelor’s degree in human services.
She plans to earn a graduate degree and become a social worker.
"Vets respond to Vets. I want to be able to assist them in a higher level," she said. "I want to advance the level of reaching out to Vets."
Tracy S. wanted to see the world.
She was the first member of her family to graduate from high school, and joined the U.S. Army shortly after in the late 1980s with hopes of meeting new people and traveling away from her rural Virginia town.
"Something in me just wanted to do more," she said.
Tracy served as an aviation operations specialist, maintaining records of aircraft at Fort Bragg in North Carolina.
Then the first Gulf War began, and Tracy was deployed. She belonged to a unit that responded to the scene of an aircraft crash in which several Service members were killed. After the experience, Tracy found she had anxiety and trouble sleeping.
She began to self-medicate with sleeping pills and alcohol. After her wedding and the birth of her three children, Tracy continued to struggle with depression and stopped taking care of herself. She lost the heat and electricity in her home first, then the home itself. The family stayed with her parents and in hotels.
"We had nowhere to go," she said.
When Tracy began thinking of ending her life, she knew she needed to get help. She left her unhealthy relationship, and eventually married a Veteran who suggested she go to a U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) medical center for help.
At VA, mental health care professionals were able to diagnose and treat Tracy's post-traumatic stress disorder.
"And then all these doors just started opening for me," she said. "I was finally able to see a light at the end of this dark tunnel."
With the guidance of a VA social worker, Tracy earned her associate degree and has plans to continue for a bachelor's degree. She also received a home loan and disability pay from VA—"a godsend," she said.
"If it wasn’t for the VA, I don’t know where I’d be," she said. "I don’t have to worry where our next meal is going to come from."