To Dispel 'A Cloud Of Shame'

February 25, 1994|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,States News Service

WASHINGTON -- From an Army base in Germany, Gregory Sowers moved straight to a Baltimore sidewalk. For four years, he slept on the city's street corners and heating grates.

"As soon as I got out, I was homeless," said Mr. Sowers, who was discharged from the military in 1989 for alcohol abuse. "I lost my pride. I lost my self-esteem. The longer you're out there, the harder it is to deal with life."

Mr. Sowers, 26, joined scores of veterans yesterday at a two-day summit on veterans' homelessness conducted by the Department of Veterans Affairs. The conference caps a week of attention focused on the issue, marked by a rally outside the White House and a hearing by the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee on homeless veterans.

"Our nation has a cloud of shame hanging over it as long as tens of thousands of American veterans need a roof over their heads," said Secretary of Veterans Affairs Jesse Brown.

An estimated 250,000 veterans constitute about one-third of the nation's homeless population.

Calling the needs of this growing population "a national priority," Mr. Brown said yesterday that the VA will direct $70 million to its homeless-assistance programs this year, $20 million more than last year. In addition, the VA is seeking ways to steer veterans off the streets and into more stable lives.

Mr. Sowers may be one of the VA's success stories. After being released from jail, where he served a brief sentence for burglary, he vowed that he would never again be desperate for food and money.

He sought help at the VA Medical Center in Baltimore and now lives with a roommate in the city and helps run a soup kitchen for the homeless. When Mr. Sowers lived on the streets, he said, 50 of his 70 homeless friends were veterans. Now he wants to help them.

Such aid may not be easily delivered. Paul Egan, executive director of the Vietnam Veterans of America, says that a broad approach to homelessness can do little for those scarred by psychological and physical combat wounds.

"The lion's share of homeless veterans are combat veterans and frequently have problems with post-traumatic stress," Mr. Egan said. "It's hard for them to hold onto their jobs and keep their families together. . . . They tend to become substance abusers as a way to self-medicate themselves."

The government is trying to make it easier for veterans to find help for problems ranging from drug abuse to joblessness, said Mike Tomsey, a psychologist who runs the job-training program at the VA's Baltimore regional office.

An estimated 3,000 Maryland veterans are enrolled in the VA's job-training program.

Demand for services continues to grow. For every 15 veterans housed in city shelters each day, about 15 more are turned away because of a lack of resources, said Joseph A. Raiti, the homeless coordinator for VA services at the Baltimore VA Medical Center. Among the more than 18,400 homeless in Baltimore in 1991, he said, about 5,530 probably were veterans.

A privately funded veterans housing facility in Baltimore, providing up to 200 beds, could open in April, Mr. Raiti said.

Nationwide, more than 30 new VA homeless programs will be established this year and about 20 will be expanded. But some veterans say the problem has grown so large that the promise of new federal action offers limited hope.

"The people I'm worried about are the people who have fallen through the cracks in the system," Mr. Sowers said. "They're just tired. They're not going anywhere. And they're not going to the VA for help because they're tired of that program, too."

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