The man that Lea Anne Peterson is hunting has been here.
Look — here are his footprints, she says as she tromps through knee-high snow. Here is where he dumped his coffee, she says as we wind our way toward the east bank of the Missouri River.
And here, hidden in a heavily wooded area, is his tent. Here on the Council Bluffs side of the river — so close to downtown Omaha that you can practically touch the skyline — is the makeshift tarp-and-blanket structure that he has lived in for at least seven years. Here is Frank's home.
“VA Outreach!” Lea Anne yells into the trees. “Anybody here?”
Frank is not home.
Since 2009, the Omaha VA has hunted for, and hunted down, homeless veterans who for years had lived on the streets, under bridges or in makeshift tent cities scattered around the area. The effort is part of a massive government program that costs $1.4 billion annually and comes with a lofty goal: End veteran homelessness by 2015.
In Omaha, it's working. A dozen Veterans Affairs employees, working in close contact with federal agencies and the area's shelters and soup kitchens, have sliced the number of homeless vets in half in the past five years. Now the VA is going after the remaining 450-odd homeless vets with some serious financial firepower.
In 2007, the VA spent $75,000 on homeless veteran programs in Omaha.
This year, total funding for local homeless vets: roughly $3.5 million.
“So many times we see the government initiate a plan but not provide the resources,” said Linda Twomey, manager of the Omaha-area VA's Mental Health Specialty Programs. “That's not the case with this. The VA has done a tremendous job of matching resources with the need.”
But here's the rub: Many of the remaining homeless vets are the toughest cases. They have lived on the streets for years, even decades, and have grown used to the life. Severe mental illnesses or severe addiction or both have gone largely untreated.
For Lea Anne, the problem is no longer a lack of ways to help homeless vets. The problem has become, how do you help homeless vets who aren't sure they want your help?
“At this point, if you are a chronically homeless vet in Omaha, there is another reason you aren't housing,” she says. “We're trying to take down the barriers for these people, one by one.”
They are working for men like Harper. Lea Anne finds him sitting outside the Siena-Francis House in the cold and sipping a cup of coffee in the early morning hours of a recent Wednesday. (At the request of the VA, I have changed the names of the homeless vets included here.)
Two years ago, Harper seemed destined for better things. Lea Anne had him hooked up with an apartment as part of a Housing First program, which can quickly house honorably discharged military veterans with virtually no strings attached.
He had part-time job possibilities. He had an easy route into therapy and whatever medical help he needed.
Just before Harper was supposed to pick up his keys, he told Lea Anne, “This is too much, I can't do this.” He promptly disappeared.
Lea Anne didn't see him for over a year. She had no idea if he still lived in Omaha, or if he survived the winter. Then, early this month, she was trolling the city in search of another vet and happened upon Harper walking near north downtown. She hollered a greeting at him. He walked the other way.
This morning Lea Anne slowly approaches Harper, who is wearing a puffy Nebraska Cornhuskers coat and won't meet her gaze.
Jason Reid, a VA addiction specialist, and I watch from a distance as she oh-so-gently eases him into a conversation. How you doing, Harper? You feeling OK? Where you staying?
Harper talks for a couple minutes, and then he abruptly says he needs to go. He stands up, walks out of Siena-Francis and heads to wherever he's heading.
Lea Anne can't dwell on that for long, because sitting inside is a Marine veteran named Don whom the VA outreach staff hasn't seen in a while. Don tells me he fought in Vietnam and has been homeless since his wife died in May.
He doesn't like the young bucks — some of them veterans — who are a big part of the hundreds of men crowded into the Siena-Francis House's Day Services Center this morning.
He also doesn't like the VA.
“I try to avoid it as much as possible,” he says. “All that red tape.”
Lea Anne and Jason bump into this sort of thing all the time, the legacy of decades of neglect and residual anger from Vietnam-era vets. But the current VA is teeming with additional mental health programs for men like Don, as well as housing options that don't require him to get sober or get therapy.
Which is why Lea Anne works on him and the half-dozen others she sees on Wednesday the same way. Slowly. Methodically.
She works to regain their lost trust. She brings up all their housing and health options.
And, maybe most important, Lea Anne makes sure that she or Jason or another of the VA's dozen outreach employees will bump into these men again, and again, and again. Some will never come around, she says, but some will.
“We don't want to lose these guys,” she says of men like Harley and Don. “These are exactly the kind of guys we're looking for.”
Which is why we are tromping through the woods on the east bank of the Missouri River, hunting for Frank.
Lea Anne first met him four years ago, at an annual “Stand Down” event where homeless vets come to the Civic Auditorium and get free clothes, food, the benefits they are owed and whatever medical attention they need.
Frank just wanted a coat.
The second year, he got another coat. The third year, a third coat.
But this year, he finally told Lea Anne a bit about himself. How he'd been homeless in Omaha for seven years. And then a breakthrough: He drew a map of where he pitched his tent, so she could come and visit him.
Since November, four different VA employees have wandered into this small patch of land where Frank hides from society.
They have given him tissues and candy and blankets. They have offered him rides and visits to the doctor's office.
They have all but begged him to sign up for Social Security. All that stands between him and a monthly check is a ride to the VA office and a couple of forms.
Frank's story never changes. He's planning to leave the area really soon. He'll get the Social Security on his own later. He's fine.
Which is fine with Lea Anne, who likes Frank and is duly impressed by the life he has carved for himself out of tarps and trees and his self-designed toilet.
Today, we look for him mostly so that Lea Anne can gave him a goody bag — tissues, hand warmers, clean socks — and ask him if he needs another blanket or anything else. We look in the trees and then at two soup kitchens he frequents, with no luck.
Lea Anne can't and doesn't want to force Frank in from the cold. But, as long as the funding is there, you'd better believe she'll keep hunting for Frank. She'll keep trying to persuade him to at least sample the society he long ago exited.
“We don't want to lose this guy,” she says as we tromp through the knee-high snow back to the car. “This is exactly the kind of guy we want to help.”
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