One Homeless Veteran's Story

It's a bit discombobulated and circular, yet then again, so is life so let's begin shall we?

I borrowed a staff members cart, placed the final plastic bins full of personal belongings and my acoustic guitar on top, and wheeled the journey down the third-floor hallway for the last time. I had spent the previous seven months occupying bed one of three in a corner room of the Veterans Administration Domiciliary program – that’s seven months on the hospital bed roll, receiving all manner of support and services as a participant in their “Life Works” program.

Pressing the button to call an elevator, some high fives and other goodbyes were exchanged. I took the ride to the basement level, pushing the cart down that hall, exiting into the parking lot. I took my time packing, adjusting, and re-packing my belongings in my 1996 Isuzu Rodeo, which had nearly 360,000 miles on it with a chemically patched head gasket. I had a long drive to Missouri ahead of me. I had passed a California smog test and was prepared to drop what was left of my saved cash to put a legal plate on in the week preceding my trip – until a lovely woman at the Santa Monica DMV asked me that pointed question, “Do you intend to return the vehicle to California?” My answer being in the negative, she gifted me with a fifteen dollar “one-way” registration, valid for my drive to Missouri. I filled out the pertinent information, leaving the date portions of the form blank as she had instructed me, and placed it with my insurance card and a pen in the glove box. Were I to be pulled over, I’d hastily slap dates in and stick it in the window before the officer reached my door.

Before all of this? I was flat out homeless on the streets of Los Angeles. I had been living in and out of the back of the Isuzu Rodeo I had purchased with the proceeds from an administrative judge in Arizona ruling in my favor over an unemployment claim, previously denied. I had made the trek back to California for a highly promising job opportunity, after spending a year in Phoenix, Arizona. After several rounds of interviews, the company ghosted me. There was no plan B, and I was stuck.

I’d had plenty of gracious friends host me along the way, provide me the creature comforts of a shave and a shower, a warm bed, a kitchen to cook a real meal in… these were all transitory situations. As a combat veteran who also enjoys camping and other activities in the high desert, the reality of “camping out” as a way of life had not yet fully dawned on me. I’m certain there was always an internal tape loop, repeating the mantra, “We’ll get back indoors once we’ve got some income.” The problem with that kind of tape loop is it can run roughshod over everything else, for weeks, months, years!

My original treatment plan with the Veterans Administration included a HUD/VASH Voucher from Los Angeles County Housing Authority; a hopeless attempt to find ANYONE willing to rent a Section 8 roach motel to a homeless veteran, income guaranteed by the Government or otherwise, ensued. I searched high and low, my closest brushes with success being roughly 63rd and Crenshaw, or downtown at 6th and Spring. Flooding the market with these vouchers had me competing county-wide with EVERYONE needing housing and was futile. Had my social worker and I successfully navigated me into housing, the next step was Chapter 31 Vocational Rehab, which would have seen me attending Musicians Institute in Hollywood for four years to study music performance with an emphasis on guitar.

Compared with many of my fellow veterans in “the Dom”, I had hit a minor lottery in being selected for a position in my original field, Information Technology, back in Kansas City, my home town. A full blown, bona-fide Government Employee with full benefits kind of situation. There was no interview; the phone rang, they offered, I accepted, sent fingerprints, and began this whole other odyssey of returning to the fold of “normal society”. June 8th of 2015 is when the change began in earnest. Having been parking spot hopping, and later spending time in a dear friend’s trailer while weed whacking and performing other tasks, eventually the road lead to an area defined in a decision in Jones v. City of Los Angeles as the area east of Main Street, south of Third Street, west of Alameda Street, and north of Seventh Street – otherwise known as Skid Row.

One only needs to spend one night in the back of a vehicle in this part of Los Angeles to know they DON’T want to spend another one there. Thus, Santa Monica’s beach and pier, and random parking spot hopping through the likes of Venice Beach, resumes. ANYTHING to avoid another night at the Circus.

When my homelessness began in earnest in Phoenix, Arizona, I visited the local VA to see if they could help me in any way. My prior existence, despite being a twenty-six-foot Class D trailer, circa 1973, squatting on a mountain in San Diego County, had running water and electricity, thereby disqualifying me from essentially any program they had to offer. This was the same era the Phoenix VA made headlines for wait times of more than sixty days to see a physician, and I too experienced the “uselessness” of seeking help in this format.

A close friend convinced me to reconsider while in California. I made some internet searches, called a couple of numbers that offered little improvement over my current situation. Lightning struck on the third telephone call – I reached a staff member in “Building 402” of the Greater Los Angeles Veterans Hospital property. “If you can you get yourself here before 18:30 hours, I’ve got a bed and meals for you, and we’ll figure out what’s next.”

I spent three weeks at the Salvation Army “Haven” on the property. Three hots and a cot, essentially, with showers and such. My social worker farmed me out to interview with the likes of New Directions and other programs operating on the property under the “Grant Per-Diem” programs. They help veterans, no doubt, but profit immensely in doing so. After interviewing with intake staff at the Domiciliary, we decided their Life Works program would be the best fit, and I entered the program on the eighth of June 2015. A place to live, meals, showers, laundry, and an array of treatment options for substance abuse, post-traumatic stress disorder, social activities – everything you need to start becoming “whole”, except for dental care. (Extractions only.)

(c) 2018 Veteran's Guitar Project/Maslow's Basement/Dustin Decker