With no job and no prospects, Daniel Gonzales, 42, drove up to Flagstaff from Phoenix on faith that his life would change.
A former U.S. Marine and alcoholic in recovery, he stayed his first night at Thorpe Park.
“I didn’t have any idea of what Flagstaff was about,” he said.
He took a walk the next morning and visited a church downtown. The congregation of the Christian Science Society gave him a line on a job, and handed him a list of resources for veterans. He was homeless three weeks before he found lodging with the help of the Northern Arizona Veterans Resource Center.
The NAVRC recently received its third year of $2 million funding from the Veterans Administration to keep veterans like Gonzales housed in northern Arizona. So far, the nonprofit NAVRC has aided in housing, or has helped keep housed, more than 1,000 veterans.
The program is meeting with success, said Tom Isakson, regional director for the VRC based in Flagstaff. About 95 percent of the 523 households served last year had stable housing after the VRC assistance.
“More than half the cases we serve are for the literally homeless,” Isakson said. About 60 percent of the households served are homeless when they come to the VRC for help. The remaining 40 percent of the veterans and their families the VRC serves receive homeless prevention services, or help because their housing is in jeopardy.
Veterans and their families who qualify must make less than 50 percent of the area’s adjusted median income, and must be facing eviction, be living with friends or family and cannot continue, or are currently homeless.
Isakson said a veteran is anybody who has served one day beyond basic training and who was discharged in any capacity other than “dishonorably.” But Isakson added that the VRC will even informally help veterans with information and referrals who have been dishonorably discharged.
During the first year of the program start in northern Arizona, Isakson said that the VRC served 638 veterans. The second year, the VRC served 523.
“That was surprising to me because in the first year, nobody knew us,” Isakson said, adding that he and his staff worked hard to get the word out. The expectation was that the second year would have higher numbers.
“So despite our better methods at finding them, we found fewer,” Isakson said. “It could mean we’re helping to solve the problem.”
The numbers at the end of the current year might help to clarify the picture, Isakson added.
“There will always be need for this program because there will always be veterans who fall into homelessness,” Isakson said. “But we can make that number smaller and smaller each year.”
The reasons for homelessness are many. According to the VRC, veterans often find it difficult to transition back into civilian life, and during their time in the service, what the veterans do as jobs don’t often translate well back into civilian life. Veterans who have been in combat can also find it difficult to manage the psychological effects of war, Isakson said.
The first priority is housing, Isakson said. The VRC helps with rent and utilities for an average of two or three months to help veterans get back on their feet – either by finding better work, or securing benefits like disability, or Social Security.
“We’re not a long-term assistance program,” Isakson said. “We position people for self-sufficiency.”
The largest barrier to permanent housing in Flagstaff is cost, Isakson said. The veterans who come into the VRC for help often have jobs, or live on fixed incomes from a retirement or disability, but the jobs and available income aren’t sufficient to cover the costs of moving into a home – first and last month’s rent, deposits, etc.
Other barriers include drug and alcohol abuse and mental illness. Most often, it is physical disability that leads to veterans becoming, or nearly becoming, homeless.
In the end, Isakson said that the vast majority of veterans who receive help want help long enough to get back on their feet, so they can begin paying their own way once again.
“They want to pay for it themselves to the highest degree possible,” Isakson said.
ABOVE AND BEYOND
The NAVRC, which is part of the Veterans Resource Centers of America, serves the state north of the metro Phoenix area, with offices in Flagstaff, Prescott and Bullhead City. The NAVRC functions with 10 case managers, three program support specialists and three site directors.
The NAVRC offers case management to help veterans come up with plans to finding and keeping housing, helps veterans find housing, gives financial assistance with rent and utilities and gives information and refers veterans to other social service agencies they might need to achieve their goal of permanent housing.
One veteran who came into the NAVRC for housing help even landed a job in the Flagstaff office.
Michael Bradley, 61, is a receptionist at the NAVRC and has lived in Flagstaff nearly his whole life. He graduated from Flagstaff High School in 1972 and went into the U.S. Army after graduation. After his two years in the Army, stationed at Fort Hood, Texas, he returned home and worked the next 25 years at all three Denny’s locations as a cook.
“It was a good job,” he said. “It helped me raise my family.”
After his two sons finished high school, he and his wife divorced. His drinking had a lot to do with it. After that, he went “wherever the winds carried me.”
He would work from time to time, he lived in the woods and he stayed in the city’s homeless shelters. About six years ago, he ran into people at local social service agencies who were intent on trying to help him get off the streets, and he found the process of getting out of his isolation difficult.
But those relationships with people who cared about him slowly brought him around. He cited the people at the NAVRC as being particularly helpful.
“That helped me get out of myself and think beyond how I was going to keep myself warm at night and fed during the day,” Bradley said.
The VRC set him up with counseling at The Guidance Center, got him into housing that he could afford, and in December he was offered a job at the VRC. He said he’s planning on taking classes at Coconino Community College because he’s interested in an occupation that will help other struggling veterans.
“I’ve had a lot of people believe in me, but (the VRC staff) reached me in a way nobody else had,” Bradley said.
Gonzales, who now rents a room in Sunnyside, is at Northern Arizona University studying secondary education. The NAVRC helped him with rent until he could secure funding for school with the GI Bill, which also helps him with a living allowance.
He wants to be a history teacher.
Of the NAVRC help, Gonzales said, “I think it’s one of the greatest plans I’ve ever run into. All of them, they would do whatever they could. I’ve never been treated so well for being a veteran.”
Isakson said that when he met Gonzales, he was getting acclimatized to sleeping in his truck and living a homeless life – a term called “presentism,” which is a coming to believe that present circumstances are normal.
“But that’s not what he really wanted,” Isakson said. “What he wanted was an apartment and a career. It turns out,