Hundreds of Homeless Veterans Living in the Woods Along the Mississippi Gulf CoastBy Rhonda Miller | Published 07 Nov 2012 09:21am |
As the nation prepares to honor military men and women on Veterans Day, hundreds of homeless veterans are living in the woods along the Mississippi Gulf Coast. The goal of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs is to end veteran homelessness by 2015. But as MPB’s Rhonda Miller reports, it’s a slow process in Mississippi.
At the Veterans Administration Stand Down in Biloxi, homeless veterans line up for health check-ups, as well as blankets, boots and other winter survival gear.
"Have you got a hoodie?"
That’s 39-year-old Army veteran Eddie Towne.
“Honey, I don’t have another hoodie, I don’t think.” ”Anything to keep me warm.”
Towne was in the Army for nine years until 2004. He served 18 months in Iraq.
"You got any tents?" "If they had them they would have been here, like with the sleeping bags, the tents, I mean, the mosquito nets. I don’t think there were any tents..."
Towne completed a three-month Post Traumatic Stress Disorder program at the Biloxi V.A.
"How did you become homeless?" "Lack of work. I passed my welding test. I’m a welder. Got right to work, right away, and the second day they laid us off. So that put me homeless right there." "So how long have you been homeless?" "Since I came back from Iraq, I’ve probably been homeless at least 10 times. That’s why I know what I need to carry when I’m walking around. "
Towne is expecting to start a welding job soon at a local shipyard. Between jobs, he’s been living in the woods.
"Where do you live in the woods?" "I live on the post right here." "You live on the V.A.?" "Yeah." "Do they know?" "No." "Should we say that?" "Oh, I don’t care. You can say it all you want. Why is a war veteran homeless on your property? That’s what should be said."
At the Stand Down in October, coordinator of health care for homeless veterans at the Biloxi V.A., Susan Turner, says the weak economy is hard on veterans.
"We see a lot of veterans that are 53 to 61, before they start getting their Social Security. They were construction workers, plumbers, electricians and having a hard time finding work. "
Turner says since April, 25 veterans who were living in the woods have moved into housing.
"I think we’re working really hard to end homelessness. We are limited by how many vouchers we have. But we have other resources to help get them housed. Housing First from Mobile is here today. We have Oak Arbor here from Pine Belt Mental Health in Hattiesburg. So things are picking up."
Things are definitely picking up for 67-year-old Army veteran Gene Mitchell. He’s just rented a room after living in the woods for nearly a year. At Feed My Sheep soup kitchen in Gulfport, Mitchell offers insight into the readjustment issues some veterans face, with disturbing details of his service in Vietnam.
"When people talk about Hell, we was in Hell. I’ve had guts all over me. I’ve had brains all over me. I’ve had people’s blood all over me. At the time, I don’t know, you just...you get immune to it. And it’s hard to deal with when you come back. And it does something to a person’s mind. I mean you just can’t get out there and open fire and know you’re killing people… you don’t how many you’re killing...but the killing gets to you after a while."
Veterans Administration coordinator for homeless programs in the southeast region, Dorothy Thomas, says there are about 68,000 homeless veterans across the nation. She says about 400 of those are in Mississippi.
"I would like to see more non-profits along the Gulf Coast, especially beginning in Biloxi all the way back over to Louisiana, apply for more services and to establish some services for homeless veterans in that area, because that area has very minimal resources."
"This is a house for homeless veterans. It’s actually a duplex. We’ll house two homeless veterans here once it’s completed."
That’s Everett Lewis, manager of housing programs for Back Bay Mission in Biloxi. He says the duplex will be ready in December.
“What do you think about this in terms of all the veterans who are here and I know there are veterans living in the woods?” “Well, it’s a start, to be perfectly honest with you.”
It is a small start, considering there are about 400 homeless veterans living in Mississippi. And those are only the homeless veterans who have been counted.
Rhonda Miller. MPB News. Biloxi.
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