After a decade of wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan, more young veterans are back from combat with nowhere to live. New numbers just released from the federal VA and HUD find in the last year, 13,000 homeless veterans were between the ages of 18 and 30.
They make up nine percent of homeless veterans nationwide but their numbers are only expected to rise as troop drawdowns continue. In Connecticut, there are anywhere from 3,000 to 4,000 veterans who are homeless each day.
As part of WNPR's Coming Home Project, Lucy Nalpathanchil profiles an emergency shelter in Hartford that dedicates beds specifically to veterans. South Park Inn has been an emergency homeless shelter in Hartford since the mid-1980s. The shelter is a former church on Main Street that serves up to forty-five men and forty women and children each night.
But that's not all. Upstairs inside the former sanctuary is an additional thirty-three living spaces with ten beds allotted solely for veterans. Jeannette Oquendo is the Transitional Living coordinator at South Park Inn. "We're always full and we usually have people waiting to come in."
David Meissner is one of the veterans living here. He's 25 and walks with a cane. He's an Iraq war veteran, a former military police officer who served four years with the U.S Army. Meissner suffered a traumatic brain injury in Iraq and has numbness on the left side of his body from shrapnel injuries. He laments about how civilians don't understand what veterans go through once they’re home from war. "It's just bad, like your mental state is messed up. You have high anger, increased agitation, situations like the one thing could set you off."
Meissner's a Nevada native who found South Park Inn nine months ago after he and his girlfriend broke up. He has his own space in the transitional area upstairs where Veterans can live for up to eighteen months while they line up a permanent living arrangement. Meissner says it's helped him turn his life around. "If I was staying anywhere else I wouldn't have gotten crap done, literally. This place actually helps you and pushes you, and gets you in the direction you need, get things I needed. I got my housing, I got my SSD. Social security disability."
South Park Inn has a designated case manager who works with the veterans. It also brings other resources to the shelter so veterans without transportation can still learn about programs that can help them. These sessions take place every Thursday, Oqendo says it’s known as the Veterans Drop In Center. "We have the liason from the VA right here, we have the American Legion and several other agencies. We have the applications, the computers to get them appointments, whatever else they need and done right there and then."
Today, Meissner is with about a dozen other veterans sitting around tables inside the shelter's cafeteria. Some wait to speak to a VA worker about benefits. Others talk to a state Labor department specialist who works solely with veterans. There's also a volunteer from the American Legion who helps veterans fill out forms to get discharge paperwork they may have lost.
The shelter began the drop in center three years ago after the VA moved an office out of Hartford. Brian Baker, Assistant Director of South Park Inn says since 2008, more than 1,100 veterans have stopped by the shelter's drop in center. Some are familiar faces, others are not. They come from all over the city. Baker says the program runs on donations alone. "Our drop in center is not funded by the VA, it's not by anybody. It's not done in many places in the country so it's not something you can get a grant for. So if a there's a service organization out there that wants to donate a pair of socks or wants to donate a fund where a veteran needs a pair of boots because they found a job? We can give them $60 bucks they need? You know that's, that's big."
SouthPark sees veterans come and go, the average stay is about six months. Meissner will be one of them leaving soon after applying for a federal VA housing voucher that he learned about at South Park's Drop in Center. "I'm going to Manchester because I like Manchester. It's quiet, it's nice, it's sort of a town, not much going on. But it's where I like to be."
After Meissner leaves, he's always welcome to return. But there is a waiting list of one month. This guarantees that a bed won't stay open for long.