It feels like we're deep in the woods, but we're not. We're actually within city limits, following a pickup truck loaded heavily with outdoor supplies, sack lunches and barrels of water. Soon, clusters of tents and hastily constructed shacks come into view. We stop, and the pickup comes to a stop next to a pair of tents and a pile of half-filled water bottles, lanterns, a shopping cart and countless other items.
Two men approach from behind a berm. This is their camp and they immediately recognize the men from the pickup truck, Jim Montoya, Craig Cass and Steve Martin, volunteers from the Central Oregon Veteran's Outreach (COVO), a group that provides assistance to the area's military veterans, specializing in homeless outreach. They know these men - both of whom are veterans - and there's an immediate and visible bond between these volunteers and the two men camping here.
With more veterans coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan, the number of homeless vets is on the rise both locally and nationally. COVO's executive director, Chuck Hemingway, says that these veterans are confronting additional challenges ranging from a sluggish job market to mental illn ess. The federal government has made an ambitious goal to stamp out homelessness among veterans in the next five years, but the problem persists to the point that one out of every four homeless people in the U.S. is a military veteran.
At the announcement of the 2011 One-Day Homeless Count numbers, a tally of homeless residents of the tri-county area, Hemingway announced that that year's count showed a sharp uptick in homeless veterans. But he says those numbers don't paint the full picture. In the COVO offices, there's a clipboard on which the nonprofit organization documents each homeless veteran with whom they come in contact . Over the last year, COVO volunteers counted more than 200 people they believe to be homeless, which is far more than the 105 noted during the one-day homeless count.
In contrast to the support and treatment networks available to physically wounded veterans, those who come home with emotional scars often slip through the system. A few will freefall all the way to the bottom where they find themselves homeless, and too often, hopeless. Once there, few resources exist to pull them back into a productive life.
Jesse is one of those veterans living on the margins in Bend. He declines to give his last name or have his face photographed because he has potential employment opportunities. He doesn't want his chances of landing construction work impacted by the public knowing he's living in a homeless camp.
Jesse entered the Marines right out of high school. By 2003, he was in Baghdad where he served a combat tour in the early days of the Iraq War. He's vague about that tour, understandably so, but says he got out of the service in 2006. Soon thereafter, he and his family returned to Bend.
He sits at a fire pit, empty bottles of malt liquor at his feet. He seems embarrassed by the evidence of his drinking, and says that he knows he shouldn't be drinking, but that the beer helps to calm his mind. While he says he still has a house where his family lives, he often finds himself unable to "keep it together" around his wife and children, at which point he heads out to the camp to clear his mind.
"Sometimes I'm crazy in my head and I have to take off," says Jesse, rubbing his hands together.
He says the health care from the V.A. is nice, but things can still be hard and he acknowledges that he suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), but has yet to find a way to manage those symptoms.
"I mean, have you ever heard a bomb go off?" Jesse asks rhetorically, shaking his head. Everyone is silent, even the COVO volunteers, but it seems they know exactly what he's talking about.
PTSD is an ailment common among veterans returning from combat and military life in general. First called "shell shock," the condition manifests itself in several different ways, including flashbacks to the traumatic events, an ongoing sense of alertness and an avoidance of relationships, among other symptoms, according to the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs' National Center for PTSD. The disorder is known to lead to alcohol and drug abuse, and is a leading cause of homelessness in veterans.
The COVO volunteers head deeper into the brush to another gathering of tents where some of the other residents of the camp say they'll find a man they call "Colonel."
Colonel comes out and smilingly greets his fellow veterans, the COVO volunteers. He chats with them for a while, then begins talking about how he found one of his friends dead in the camp just days earlier.
He's a Vietnam veteran and has been out in the camp for a few weeks now, he says. Suddenly and without much warning, his eyes well up with tears.
"They're dooming us to failure out here," he says. He breaks down, apologizes and then makes his way into the brush toward his camp.
On a recent Friday afternoon, Chuck Hemingway's office supplies, plaques and other belongings are mostly unpacked and he's almost settled into the new space that COVO moved into only two weeks prior. Hemingway is a busy guy and can't speak for more than a few minutes without the phone ringing. He answers and proceeds to assist a local veteran book a seat on the daily shuttle to the VA in Portland, just one of the services the organization provides. COVO, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization funded primarily by a contract with the VA and a collection of grants and donations, was founded in 2005 and has since seen the scope of its services expand beyond distributing supplies to homeless camps. The organization relies heavily on volunteers, most of whom are military veterans, to assist other veterans with disability claims, other veteran-related paperwork and to assist in operating COVO's transitional housing program.
Hemingway made a career out of the Army and during his service earned a law degree and a Masters degree in law. With a slight Southern drawl, evidence of his Arkansas upbringing, Hemingway begins describing some of the experiences that led him to devote his time to helping his fellow veterans.
"I was in a hospital in Roseburg and I'd see veterans helping other veterans. A guy without arms was getting help eating from another veteran," says Hemingway.
In 2007, Hemingway continued his education, earning a degree from OSU-Cascades in counseling that equipped him to deal with the daily challenges his position presents. He worked as the case manager at COVO's Home of the Brave, a transitional home for veterans looking to get back to work by way of job training, sobriety and other measures to get their lives back on track. Near the end of 2010, Hemingway was named executive director of the organization.
An estimated 70 to 80 percent of COVO's resources are spent addressing the needs of the homeless. The new COVO offices, which the organization rents from Deschutes County, have a number of small cubbyholes in a wooden box behind one of the desks. This serves as a mailbox for homeless veterans who use the office as their permanent address, allowing them to work toward stabilizing their lives by getting a driver's license and employment. Hemingway calls it an important service and a way to help a homeless veteran break the cycle and get back into society.
Kristen Hubinak doesn't fit the stereotype of a homeless veteran. She was working. She was raising a child. She attended school. And, of course, she is female. But after a series of circumstances led her to be without a home, Hubinak found herself needing a place to stay and had to turn to COVO for assistance. The irony was that the Navy veteran, now 32, had been working for the county's Veteran's Services Department and was suddenly in the same situation she'd seen many of her fellow veterans - almost all of them men - experience.
Hemingway says that the public almost never associates a female face with the issue of homelessness among veterans, but this is a quickly growing segment of the homeless population.
"In 2010, we had one or two women (veterans) that indicated they were homeless. By the end of 2010, that number had grown to 10. This year, about 14 female veterans have said they're homeless," says Hemingway.
This summer, Hubinak will graduate from Central Oregon Community College, where she's been studying for a career in drug and alcohol education. She's also interested in learning more about neurosciences in order to someday work with veterans afflicted with PTSD. But not long ago, life wasn't so stable. With the only available veteran's housing in Bend geared toward men, and especially those with substance abuse problems, Hubinak had nowhere to live with her young son.
Fortunately, she was able to apply, and eventually receive, a housing voucher through a relatively new federal program that resulted from a joint effort between the V.A and the Department of Urban Development commonly referred to as HUD-VASH. In 2008, the federal government allocated $75 million to the program, which is part of a larger effort by the V.A. and the Obama administration to end veterans' homelessness within the next five years. About 10,000 HUD-VASH vouchers, which provide housing assistance to veterans, were handed out annually between 2008 and 2010.
The program, however, wasn't immediately available in Central Oregon. Hubinak was offered housing in Portland, but that would have meant being separated from her son, so she opted to stay in Bend. Soon, she became one of the first veterans in the region to receive a voucher, something for which she is eternally grateful and part of the reason she continues her work with veterans now and hopefully in the future.
The HUD-VASH program hasn't been a cure-all for homelessness among our area's veterans. According to Hemingway, Bend received 25 vouchers, far from what's needed to house all the veterans who want to come in from the cold. Hemingway appreciates the program, but was disappointed by how slowly the regional V.A. office distributed the vouchers. The first man to sign up on the waiting list sat in limbo for months, during which he was living in a tent. On Christmas Day, his tent caught fire and he suffered severe burns.
"Had the V.A. gotten [the voucher program] in gear, he would have had a place to live and this wouldn't have happened," says Hemingway.
Now, between programs like HUD-VASH, community housing like the Home of the Brave, Hemingway says COVO is making strides in assisting our homeless veterans. But what he says his group does best is make contact with these men and women, building trust with the hope that the relationship will eventually lead to stability.
"We see ourselves as being the outreach arm of this process," he says. "We make the contacts and draw them into the system so they can get the help they need."
What They Need
Central Oregon Veterans Outreach relies heavily on donations and is always accepting items that can be distributed to the area's homeless veterans. If you have some of these items on hand and would like to donate, COVO asks that donations be brought to its new offices at the Deschutes County building at 117 NW Lafayette Avetnue in Bend. Call 541-383-2793 for more info.
Socks, underwear (briefs and boxers)
Canned foods: Vegetables, chili, beans, protein bars, canned meats.
Crackers, chips and other nonperishable items
Small propane canisters
Tents (1-2 person)
5-6 gallon water containers
Hygiene Kit Items
Toothbrushes and toothpaste
Small (hotel size) shampoo bottles