Rodell Roberts, a Vietnam veteran, served in the Marine Corps from 1970 to 1981. He has held a number of odd jobs over the years and become homeless several times, something he attributes to a crack addiction, which began in 1988.
“Through the process of people, places and things, I got introduced to the drug,” Roberts said. “It became a way of life.”
Soon Roberts’ addiction sent his life careening out of control.
“It was a downward spiral,” he said. “I started using, couldn’t hold a job, became undependable, unreliable. I’ve been to prison for vagrancy, robbery and drug possession.”
In December, Roberts was on the verge of becoming homeless again, but before heading to the streets, he reached out for help. Roberts turned to the St. Albans VA facility, where he enrolled in a drug rehabilitation program and moved into its domiciliary. As of June 18, he had been drug free for 96 days.
Roberts was one of several vets who attended, what was billed as, a “stand-down” event at the Proctor Hopson VFW Post in Jamaica on Thursday. There, vets who are homeless or down on their luck were given a free meal, clothing, social services, benefits counseling, job opportunities and more.
“This is the best thing going right now, especially with the economy being the way it is,” Roberts said. “I’m surprised there aren’t more people here.”
Thursday’s stand-down was organized by vets Willie Burke, Robert Ruffin Jr. and Steve Epps, and was the third time such an event was held. Many homeless vets are enrolled in various VA programs and that’s how the VFW is able to find them and offer them help.
“We have to take care of our veterans,” said Epps, a Vietnam vet, who served in the Air Force from 1962 to 1971. “They are coming back with horrific injuries and due to their injuries a lot of them have lost their homes, they’ve lost their jobs, they’ve lost their families. Well, that’s what we’re here for. We’re here to be whatever we can be to them — to serve them, to try and help them out of their depression.”
Veterans make up 20 percent of the more than 30,000 suicides committed in the United States each year, which means that on average 18 veterans commit suicide each day, according to the Veterans Administration.
“The suicide rate for war vets is off the scale,” Epps said. “There is a disproportionate amount of veterans committing suicide, but no one seems to care. These are our children and our grandchildren that are fighting these wars. What are we going to do for them? When are we going to start caring for them the way we are supposed to — the way we promised them that we would?”
John Afake, 30, served in the Army from 1997 to 2001. Unable to adjust to civilian life after his military service ended, Afake turned to alcohol.
“I used it as a coping mechanism,” he said. “I used it to kill my feelings, to numb me from my problems. Re-integration back into civilian life is a bit difficult because the barriers are clear. Military life and civilian life are totally different.”
Afake has been living at the St. Albans domiciliary for the last two and a half months, where he is enrolled in a substance abuse treatment program. He
hasn’t had a drink since Feb. 24.
“It’s very generous and very heartwarming,” Afake said of the stand-down event. “It is especially helpful for us homeless who don’t have anything. Some of us just have the clothes on our backs, and for this to be afforded to us is really a blessing.”
The VA estimates that 107,000 veterans are homeless on any given night. Over the course of a year, about twice that amount experience homelessness, according to the National Coalition for Homeless Vets. About 1.5 million other veterans, meanwhile, are considered at-risk of homelessness due to poverty, lack of support networks and poor, overcrowded living conditions.
Chartered in 1930, Proctor-Hopson is the only VFW post in New York State that has been designated as a military families support center, according to Epps. If able to acquire funding, the organizers of the stand-down would like to hold two such events a year, or one stand-down and one health fair.
“We have a lot of brothers and sisters out there who are not as fortunate as us here at the post. They need help,” Epps said. “We are going to make sure that none of us are treated like Vietnam veterans were treated when we came back. The government is not doing what it’s supposed to do, so we are doing what we can to help.”