Homeless vet center eases transition

A once decrepit building adjacent to the Washington State Veterans Home at Retsil has been renovated and converted into housing for homeless veterans who need a way to ease their transition back into society.

“A lot of people who went to war never expected to lose a lot of what they had before,” said Veterans Transitional Housing Program Manager Ray Switzer. “There are a lot of new challenges related to military service, such as post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Support from the community is necessary from a healing standpoint, and we don’t always know how each person will be impacted by the things that happen to them in wartime.”

Many veterans manage an easy transition into civilian life, with the help of their family and support network. Others face a series of tough breaks and end up in a spiral where they lose their ability to work in their chosen field, and even their homes.

The new facility is designed to provide veterans with a warm, safe place to live while they pull their lives together. As transitional housing, it is one step from a standard homeless shelter, but it supplies some of the necessities that a down-on-their-luck veteran may find difficult to obtain.

Currently, the facility has 11 residents, with the ability to accommodate 40. The maximum allowable stay is two years, but most hope to stay for a far shorter period — a few months, perhaps — so they can learn the skills needed in order to land a job and find their own place.

Andy Rodriguez, 46, is a mechanically inclined Navy veteran with a hyperactive condition who has weathered an unfortunate streak.

He was living in subsidized housing in Bremerton and contributed half his income to his 10-year-old daughter’s care. While his take-home pay was paltry enough to qualify himself for the housing, his gross income—including the childcare proved to be a disqualifying factor.

His promotion then resulted in eviction.

Simultaneously, a prescription change aggravated his hyperactivity and caused him to lose his job.

He was living in his car when he attended a recent “stand-down” activity at the fairgrounds, where he found out about the Retsil facility.

Jeffrey Akin, 57, is a Vietnam veteran whose PTSD went undiagnosed until a 1990 suicide attempt. He worked for his father as a maintenance supervisor until 1998, then got a job as a resident manager in an apartment complex.

The PTSD was making it hard for him to function, so he applied for a six-week counseling program at a VA hospital.

His employer then fired him, leaving him without a job or a home.

“For 33 years after coming home I had no idea why my life was screwed up,” Akin said. “Then it got to the point where I couldn’t sleep or deal with people. But when I went for the treatment I needed, I had to make a choice between getting treatment or keeping my job.”

Said another resident, a Coast Guard veteran who plans to rejoin the Merchant Marine as soon as his treatment is finished, “This is a stabilizing place. You don’t just sit around, and you can’t spend your time drinking or taking drugs. You learn what you need to know to get back into the game, so you can find another job.

“When we go into the service, we’re told what to do 24 hours a day. But when we come back and attempt to readjust, we get no help. And with the Veteran’s Administration, you need to be smart enough to know what’s available, where to find it, and be willing to fight to get it.”

After the Retsil facility was remodeled in 2004, attention turned to the renovation of the 36,000-square-foot Building 9.

With a broken sewer system and asbestos issues, it became an option to just knock the structure down and start over. But the Housing Program applied for several grants, spending about $500,000 to replace the sewer system along with the parts of the building damaged by rusted water.

Today, there is a three-story building, one floor of offices and two containing private rooms, kitchens and common areas.

There is no cleaning service — each resident is responsible for their own area. The renovations continue, with little touches like making a nurse’s station look more like a hotel’s reception desk.

All of the current residents are men, but Service Center Supervisor Steve Cline said they are making an active effort to recruit female homeless veterans.

The women’s rooms each have a private bath since, as Switzer said, “They don’t really like to shower together.”

“Of our six staff members, five of us are veterans,” Cline said. “This gives us insight, as we are able to talk to them about different issues and have an understanding of what they are going through. Obviously, someone who hasn’t served can help care for a veteran but we have a unique advantage.”

Cline said that veterans who wish to use the facility first need to be screened for addiction, and no one who has committed a violent crime or sexual offense will be admitted.

Screenings are provided at the local VA Hospital.

“We don’t want to erect too many barriers,” he said. “But we do want to keep the other veterans safe.”

The facility has been operating since November, streamlining its operations.

A grand opening, to which the governor and other lawmakers will be invited, is scheduled to occur in the next month or so, according to Cline.

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