An apartment complex expected to open next month will almost quadruple the number of beds for veterans at risk of homelessness in this city, and housing experts say it's not nearly enough.
The nonprofit Volunteers of America built the 24-unit Maple Court apartments in Durham because a disproportionate number of the Triangle's 500 or more homeless veterans live there. Bob Williamson, who runs the health care program for homeless vets at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Durham, said vets are drawn to the area because of the VA and other veterans services, and the hope of jobs.
For years, however, those who couldn't find or keep jobs have ended up sleeping in shelters, parks, abandoned buildings and under bridges.
The VA has long recognized homelessness as a problem among veterans; a third of homeless men are veterans.
In the Triangle, there is no emergency shelter dedicated to the needs of vets, who may have post-traumatic stress disorder or other issues that make shelter life particularly difficult.
Though the VA doesn't fund emergency shelter for vets, it has had a program since the 1990s to help nonprofits build and run transitional housing for veterans. Intended to stop the cycle of homelessness, these can house veterans for up to two years while they are enrolled in recovery and job-training programs.
But progress is slow. Maple Court has been eight years in the making. Durham's TROSA, Triangle Residential Options for Substance Abusers, has 25 beds for homeless vets expected to come online in December. Another program has nine beds for homeless vets, including those who are HIV-positive.
Across the state, there are fewer than 300 beds in VA-supported housing for homeless vets.
“We need more,” Williamson said. But in the meantime, “We want to show veterans they are not forgotten.”
Floyd Hall was one of the first to apply for a spot in Maple Court. Hall, who served in the Army from 1976 to 1982, has been staying at the Urban Ministries Center emergency shelter in Durham for two weeks.
“This is not where I saw myself ending up,” he said.
Hall, 49, says sleeping in a room with 70 or 80 other men is a severe test for him. Hall says his PTSD causes him to be extremely anxious in open spaces and among groups of more than three or four people.
“I want to be able to make my own way,” he said. “I'm pretty sure there are some homeless people who want to be homeless, but I'm not one of them.”
Hall lived on his own for years. Most recently, he had been in Kill Devil Hills, supported primarily by a monthly Social Security disability check and working part time when he was able. Then, in February, the checks stopped coming.
Hall is still trying to find out why — he thinks he may have exceeded his income limit by as little as $100 for the year — but while he tries to get that resolved, his Medicaid coverage ended with his disabled status. He lived on savings for as long as he could, but eventually could not pay his rent. He couldn't go to the doctor for his back and other health problems. And with his PTSD and other issues, he couldn't get, or keep, a full-time job.
He pulled out his camping gear, put the rest of his belongings in rented storage, and hitched rides to Greenville, a town he knew from having attended East Carolina University for a while. He found an unoccupied church where a side door stayed unlocked, and slept there sometimes. Finally, he called the VA and asked for help.
“They told me that to enter into their homeless program, I'd have to move to Durham and stay in the homeless shelter,” he said.
Deborah Lee, the VA's regional homeless coordinator, said sometimes that's the best advice the agency can offer.
To qualify for a bed in supported transitional housing, a vet has to meet the federal definition of “homeless.” One way is to be in a shelter.
Since he's been in Durham, Hall has signed up for the first PTSD counseling sessions he's ever had. His service in Central America left him with such a vivid recollection of the scent of death that he can't stand certain sweet smells. He's scoured the Internet looking for work he can do.
Wednesday, he went to a veterans job fair, wearing socks and a shirt borrowed from another shelter resident and a coat and tie from the shelter's clothing closet.
He's waiting to hear whether he'll be accepted into Maple Court. Workers are busy with finishing touches at the complex this week, such as installing a donated flag pole outside what will be a veterans services building. Rebecca Dixon, chaplain for Volunteers of America, said she hopes to get enough donations of new dishes and cookware to outfit each resident's kitchen.
The housing alone would be a great gift, Hall said.
“We as vets – we protected while you slept,” Hall said. “We deserve some compensation for that. We're not greedy. We just want a little help. I don't think we're asking for too much.
”By training alone, we're strong individuals. But there's a point you reach where hopelessness sets in. And to be honest, I'm pretty much there.“