Santa Fe plays host to many homeless, though each individual is on the streets for different reasons. Some are born into poverty, while others lost their income when the economy turned.
But a disproportionate number at one time attained a wealth greater than their net worth. Those who decided to sacrifice their own destinies to protect the rights of others to decide their own. Military veterans make up a shockingly large percentage of homeless across the nation, including Santa Fe; and with limited options available for help, many will continue to live on the streets after fighting overseas.
Forty-seven percent of homeless vets served during the Vietnam War, and post-Vietnam-era veterans account for 17 percent. The future looks to offer no reprieve either, as 12 percent of post-9.11 service members who have separated from the military are now unemployed.
Phillip Chavez, a veteran’s employment representative for the New Mexico Department of Workforce Solutions, recently told the Santa Fe New Mexican he believes there are 700 homeless veterans living in Santa Fe.
The New Mexico Coalition to End Homelessness reported in January that 310 people live on the streets of Santa Fe, 25 of whom are veterans. The official number reported to the US Department of Housing and Urban Development only counts one day and—according to Hank Hughes, the executive director is NMCEH—only accounts for people who showed up at a homeless shelter. When you factor in people who are homeless but living with friends or family, Hughes estimates the actual numbers to be nearly 1,500 homeless in Santa Fe County, with the number of homeless veterans at around 300.
The exact figure is impossible to nail down, but a realistic estimate means homeless vets account for 3-5 percent of all veterans in Santa Fe and 0.2-0.4 percent of the total county. By comparison, in the greater Los Angeles area (despite having the greatest concentration of homeless veterans), homeless vets only make up 0.1 percent of the total population.
With this many homeless veterans wandering around Santa Fe, it would be justifiable to expect to see the VA open an office on every street corner, but unfortunately this is not the case. The NMDVS has two offices in Santa Fe, but the services provided are not aimed at assisting homeless veterans. The VA has one community-based outpatient clinic designed to deliver primary care services to eligible veterans, but this facility does not provide emergency services.
Albuquerque offers many more services to veterans, even though its population includes the same percentage of vets as Santa Fe. The Raymond G Murphy VA Medical Center on San Pedro Drive in Albuquerque is a full-service medical facility offering mental health services, social work, emergency medicine and much more. The New Mexico Veterans Integration Center, which offers transitional housing for homeless veterans, is also based in Albuquerque.
While these services are deemed close enough to other New Mexico cities by government agencies, the distance represents an insurmountable obstacle to malnourished individuals on foot, even those once trained to march 15 miles a day with 45-pound rucksacks.
Santa Fe does provide shelters for its general homeless population. One of the largest and most active in the community is St. Elizabeth Shelter, located off Alarid Street. The shelter provides aid to homeless men, women and children of all demographics and backgrounds, including veterans. According to Deborah Tang, St. Elizabeth’s executive director, the emergency shelter helped 71 male and nine female vets last year, respectively 15 percent and 6 percent of the total seen, and its street outreach program assisted 233 vets.
La Familia Medical Center provides the homeless with medical services in addition to supplies through its program Health Care for the Homeless. Staff assist with typical aliments found as a result of living on the street; but vets often suffer from more severe injuries or diseases, requiring treatments that cannot be found in free medical centers.
Kevin Hamilton, a Marine Corps veteran working as the resident manager of St. Elizabeth’s Casa Cerrillos, shared his story with SFR. His life took a turn for the worse during the last year of this enlistment, and after separating from the military, he ended up on the streets. Following his nephew to Santa Fe, Hamilton passed through two homeless shelters and a few programs before ending up at Casa Cerrillos. There, he was able to get his life back on track and, now, spends his time giving back to the program that gave to him.
But Hamilton never even sought out help from the VA when he was on the streets. He was completely unaware of any programs offered by the VA or any way to find them. When he finally landed at the shelter, he contacted the Albuquerque VA for some assistance. “Sorry, we can’t help you,” he says was its response.
Mike Peters, President of St. John’s College of Santa Fe and a decorated veteran, shared with SFR, that “I think those of us who have served have an obligation to do what we can to help our fellow veterans, especially those who are suffering in body or spirit as a result of their service.” Peters is also part of the Veterans Helping Homeless Veterans program, a part of the New Mexico Coalition to End Homelessness.
The VA has set a goal to end the cycle of veterans sleeping in the streets. In November 2009, Secretary of Veteran Affairs Eric K Shinseki announced the department’s intentions to end veteran homelessness in a five-year time span.
“Our plan enlarges the scope of VA’s efforts to combat homelessness,” Shinseki announced at the VA National Summit for Ending Homelessness among Veterans, adding, “In the past, VA focused largely on getting homeless veterans off the streets. Our five-year plan aims also at preventing them from ever ending up homeless.”
The plan touts the proposed educational benefits the Post 9/11 GI Bill will provide to future veterans as well as plans to spend $3.2 billion on preventing and reducing homelessness among vets. Spending $2.7 billion on medical services for homeless veterans is also intended.
Both skeptics and enthusiasts of the plan agree that completely ending homelessness for veterans will take time, a commodity that vets having to contend with the upcoming winter do not have in spades. More services must be immediately made available in cities, such as Santa Fe, with large homeless populations in order to make a visible difference.