Out of the Woods: Local program helps homeless veterans get their footing

From the Longview Daily News, August 20, 2011

Mike Szpakiewitz got an apartment last week.

The simple act was monumental for the 58-year-old, who after 20 years in military service and years in custom cabinetry and car repair, had sunk into depression and homelessness.

Tom Hunter, a veteran of 17 years in the Army, National Guard and Reserves, feels at peace in his new apartment after living in a pup tent in the forest for eight months.

Tom Hunter, a veteran of 17 years in the Army, National Guard and Reserves, feels at peace in his new apartment after living in a pup tent in the forest for eight months.

Tom Hunter, who served a total of 17 years in the Army, National Guard and Reserves, has been living in an airy two-bedroom apartment for eight months — the same amount of time he spent living in a pup tent in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest.

Then there’s James. Tilted back at a barbecue in his camo do-rag, the former Marine can’t believe he had to cadge nights on the couches of friends after doing well in construction and owning his own home.

James — he prefers not to use his last name — can talk about it, now, because he’s got a place of his own now.

In a 3-year-old program that has won national attention and an award for the Longview Housing Authority, homeless veterans in Southwest Washington are being rescued from the grim subset of 76,000 American veterans who have no bed, bath or address of their own.

Thanks to the Housing Authority’s Veteran Integration Program, these veterans are moving into homes scattered around the county, each assured of his or her own bedroom. While they are in this transition phase, vets are paired with case managers to access medical treatment, complete job training or disability paperwork, and regain their independence.

County residents might never guess that homeless veterans have moved in down the street. But then, these soldiers have been through things no one knows about.

Will, a Navy veteran, sorts college English assignments as he settles in to a local home where he lives as part of the Veterans Integration Program for homeless vets, run by the Longview Housing Authority.

Will, a Navy veteran, sorts college English assignments as he settles in to a local home where he lives as part of the Veterans Integration Program for homeless vets, run by the Longview Housing Authority.

Into the woods

On the wall in Tom Hunter’s living room is a little wooden sign, the kind with cute messages or Bible verses.

“Of course I’m out of my mind,” the sign says. “It’s dark and scary in there.”

Thirteen words is all it takes to tell how trauma can sabotage veterans of military service.

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, along with alcohol abuse and a crippling recession, messed up Hunter enough that it pushed two marriages over the edge, waylaid four little kids and eventually left their dad jobless and homeless.

Hunter had had enlisted at 17, fresh out of high school in Oregon City.

“In ’89, when I came off of active duty, I suffered from PTSD but I didn’t know it,” said Hunter, a bear-shaped guy with a voice and brown eyes that still harbor wounds.

“I had angry outbursts, anxiety, panic attacks, night terrors,” he said earlier this month. “It was not recognized back then. I wasn’t going to admit I had problems. I almost shot my wife two months after we were together.”

Hunter was back from Korea, where he had done an unprecedented four, 90-day tours on nighttime ambush patrols in the DMZ, the demilitarized zone between South and North Korea.

Back in Texas after nine years in the Army, he and his wife rented a house with a windowless bedroom.

Ed Jenkins, right, horses around with fellow veteran James at a barbecue earlier this summer in a home run by the Integration program.

Ed Jenkins, right, horses around with fellow veteran James at a barbecue earlier this summer in a home run by the Integration program.

“It was pitch dark. I woke up and had no idea where I was. I heard someone breathing. I kept a gun; it was part of my life since I was 17.”

Pulling a weapon on his wife was “probably the demise of my marriage,” he said.

“People don’t realize the war never ended over there,” he said. “There’s a lot more goes on that doesn’t make the news. … When you sign up in peace time, you don’t think about combat.”

By the time he and his wife split, they had four little kids, two boys and two girls. Hunter came up to Oregon, but when he got word that his ex had abandoned the kids at a church, he said, “I ended going down and getting ’em.”

The youngest was 6 months old.

“I was working on sewer lines in Oregon. I had to put the kids in day care. That was a wake-up call. … It cost $8 an hour for day care, and most jobs weren’t paying $8 an hour. My mom in Tillamook (Ore.), she’d take the kids when I had problems with day care.”

Entwined with stints in National Guard and Reserves, “The years drug on. I went to truck driving school.”

The kids were growing up, Hunter was driving truck, and he got remarried.

During that time, he suffered from asthma, emphysema and laryngeal spasms. “One day I passed out in the truck,” he said. “I was unconscious. I couldn’t work any more. That started a downward spiral.”

The marriage ended, and his oldest — a boy named for him — moved in with the family of a friend. “The girls went to Germany to live with their mom,” who had married another soldier.

“I was living on disability, $563 a month,” but as each of the children reached 18, the monthly payments would shrink.

Hunter was living in a Vancouver apartment and behind on the rent when he got a three-day notice to get out. He got a storage unit, and his older children helped move his stuff and pay the fees.

“Me and my son went into the woods. He was 15. My little companion.”

They used two “halfs,” Army slang for canvas pup tents.

Hunter would pay friends in Vancouver $40 “to drive out and get us, take us to Vancouver, then take us back. Two round trips. It was reasonable.”

Father and son bought canned goods with food stamps, cooked over a campfire and lived on library books.

His son “didn’t mind it the first couple of months,” Hunter said. “After that it was pretty miserable. I have always been very proud of him. Most teenagers would have a hard time, but he never gave up. As long as he could get to the library and get books, he was OK.”

“We swam in the river when it was warm enough.” They had to stay on the move, he said, because they might be noticed and reported.

One day at the library, Hunter sat down at a computer and found a chat room for homeless veterans.

“I really needed a shower. In two minutes they called me back. ‘What state, what town are you in?’ ”

Mike Szpakiewicz is all smiles as he signs a lease on an apartment recently. To the left is his landlady, Rachel Perry, and in the right foreground is case manager Kevin Nixon of the Longview Housing Authority.

Mike Szpakiewicz is all smiles as he signs a lease on an apartment recently. To the left is his landlady, Rachel Perry, and in the right foreground is case manager Kevin Nixon of the Longview Housing Authority.

The voices on the other end called the Veterans Administration in Vancouver, Hunter said. “In 10 minutes, Peggy —” Here he choked and tears splashed out of his eyes. “Peggy was there as quick as she could be.”

“They heard I had a 16-year-old son in the national forest. That sets off alarm bells,” he said. “I hand all the credit to Peggy (Kuhn). She fast-tracked me.”

Hunter filled out forms and met with VA workers.

There was this program up the road in Longview, they said. Maybe it would be a good fit.

One in five men

“I was a local boy, born and raised here,” said Daniel Ledgett, a case manager in the Housing Authority’s Veterans Integration Program.

“Two of my very close friends were homeless veterans,” Ledgett said. “It turned their world upside down. Drugs were never an issue. I see this all the time. It’s poor timing. One in five men in this country are jobless. Guys I grew up with have been hit hard.”

“It’s a common story.”

Older guys owe back taxes and have to give up homes they’ve worked hard to keep. Younger ones have no fall-back position — no parents with a loan, a spare bedroom or a full fridge.

“People in our program, they don’t have families to go to,” the case manager said.

When the program started in November 2008, said Nixon, “People were losing their jobs. It was a huge reality change. They couldn’t pay their rent or mortgages, they were sleeping on somebody’s couches, in garages, in tents in the woods, in their cars, at Community House.”

He has watched these guys find shelter and a job in 12 months flat, he said. “Shelter is number one on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.”

One vet had a wife and eight kids, and they got evicted, said Jon Dieter, manager of the Veterans Integration Program. “They were scattered all over, staying with relatives in Vancouver and Portland. It drove him insane.

“We got him set up with services, he got a full-time job and reunited his family,” Dieter said. “None of that would’ve happened without someone believing in him.”

Still, the program is not just a string of fairy tale endings.

A veteran may have mental health issues or drug and alcohol abuse. “He takes a nose-dive,” Dieter said. “He may come close to failing so many times,” but Nixon and Ledgett won’t let go. “They stick with him.”

Some have severe PTSD, and it’s not always feasible to help them, Nixon said.

He remembers a Vietnam vet who moved every couple of years, taking his dog Katie, going south, living first in a ghost town, ending up on the beach in South America. “He wrote excellent stories,” Nixon said.

The burly case manager has a gift of seeing and naming the strengths in those who go through the program.

Sitting with Mike Szpakiewitz in the immaculate house where Szpakiewitz lives with four other vets, Nixon said, “You took a bus 18 hours to get your little girl, and 18 hours to bring her back up here. That is the heart of a father. The heart of a father.”

Independent again

“Kevin’s worked with me a lot,” said Szpakiewitz (you say SPACK-oh-wits). “He helped me have a positive attitude. I probably wouldn’t be here today if not for him.”

Szpakiewitz is a first-generation American. His mother emigrated from Poland to New York City, then came to Longview because a church sponsored her. Mike graduated from Mark Morris High School and enlisted in the Army in 1974.

He served 10 years, including some time in the National Guard, and had no combat experience. Szpakiewitz doesn’t suffer from PTSD; his depression came the way of a slow compilation of loss.

When he arrived home in 1999, he got divorced, and his wife took their baby girl to California. When Szpakiewitz got word that his ex-wife had lost custody of the baby, he went to get the little girl. She was 15 months old.

Szpakiewitz built cabinets, and when that work dried up he took automotive classes at the college and worked on cars. From there, he went to Foster Farms. At the time he lost that job, his daughter had three little kids of her own. He babysat them for a time, and became attached.

His daughter lost the children because of her drug use, and the children were adopted. Szpakiewitz carries their photographs in his wallet.

One winter morning when he went to check on his mother, Szpakiewitz found her dead. “She wasn’t moving,” he said. “She passed in her sleep.

“She taught me to sew and cook. I was the one who listened to her stories,” he said. “It put me in a depression. I secluded myself; I never went anywhere.”

For awhile, his sister paid his rent, but eventually she could no longer help out. Szpakiewitz started sleeping in his van. A friend let him take a shower.

To see if he could get some medication, Szpakiewitz went to St. John Medical Center, then went out to the VFW 1045 on Ocean Beach Highway, where they hooked him up with a food card and told him about the Housing Authority’s program.

“I met Kevin,” he said.

Szpakiewitz was interviewed, qualified, and moved into a Longview house with other vets.

Each residences in the program has a live-in house manager, a separate bedroom for each vet, rules and shared chores. Szpakiewitz and Ed Jenkins, for instance, did the cooking at their house.

In Szpakiewitz’s tidy room, he placed the sewing machine that was his mother’s. He began using his skills again, expertly sanding and painting the Vet Works van, which transports him and other vets to handy-man and landscaping jobs.

He went to mood management classes, got his hair cut, went out to dinner at Sizzler’s with Kevin, and found out he could get dentures once he was on the program for 60 days.

Next came resume writing and setting up times to meet potential employers at the VA in Vancouver.

“Our partnership with the VA is our backbone,” Nixon said.

Szpakiewitz has begun to stretch his goals beyond survival. He’d like to work with wood again, he said, play golf, be with his grandkids, “if they want to see me. Even if my daughter can’t be in their lives, I want to be in their lives.”

At a recent barbecue, he sparred with Jenkins about the salads they made. He was laughing.

On a sunny Saturday a week later, Szpakiewitz and his cohorts loaded up a truck with the sewing machine and his other belongings, and he moved into his own place.

“I got a lot better,” he said. “I want to be independent again.”

‘Where all of us came from’

Case managers in the Veterans Integration Program see a maximum of 15 veterans; currently, Nixon is paired with 10.

“We can make a connection that way,” he said. “We want to see them succeed.”

Dieter, Nixon, Ledgett and operations manager Mike Cheney, who’s in charge of Vet Works, also plan a yearly beach trip for everyone in the Intergration Program.

“We rent a 5,000 square foot beach house in Seaview, the Bloomburg Mansion,” said Nixon. “They give us a good deal.”

Vets and staff members go fishing, fly kites, have cookouts, he said. “Four days, 14 guys.”

“You have to picture 10 to 15 old veterans racing around on go-carts,” said Tom Hunter, chuckling. “And combat croquet — I never played that before.”

Said Szpakiewitz, “We’re like little kids.”

Bowling and pizza is occasionally planned for vets and their families, and anyone who is in the program or graduated is also invited to a monthly dinner.

“It’s funny,” Tom Hunter said. “There’s a lot of different ages, but no generation gap. We know where all of us came from.”

Where they came from is shared risk, which now includes a whole new kind of foxhole.

James, the veteran who wants to go by just his first name, said “I always worked. I always paid my bills. I never intended to be homeless. You’re in the social cracks and you don’t know if you’re going to get out. … You’re under duress.”

Living in a transition house from February to May, he appreciated the structure imposed by case managers who “help you set goals if you need that. You meet monthly to check in, but they’re always calling — ‘How are you doing?’ They help you get involved with other resources, case by case — education, rehab, pursuing Social Security.”

Most important, said James, a free lance outdoors writer, is the apartment he now rents for himself.

“It’s really good for my head. I have stability.”

Since December, Hunter and his son also have been in their own apartment, with windows looking over a field and slough where mallards rise and cruise the air. With a subsidy, the rent is $57 a month.

His son got his GED at Mark Morris High School and has enrolled at Lower Columbia College.

“Right away, he was changed,” his father said. “He was motivated … I never had to hound him to get up in the morning.”

For the first time in his adult life, Hunter is sleeping soundly through the night. “This program hasn’t just changed my life,” he said. “It saved my life.”