HACKENSACK, N.J. - They awake each day at dawn, rising from wooden benches, emerging from behind bushes, crawling out of alleyways and stairwells like creatures in a bad horror movie.
But this is no cheap science-fiction thriller. The shadowy figures are homeless veterans stirring from the "spots" they call home.
Though their nicknames - "Mountain Man," "Spinner," "The Colonel" - suggest men of independence and derring-do, the reality is anything but romantic.
Stashing their meager belongings in blankets, gym bags, or underneath scraps of cardboard, they move out in all manner of dress: wrinkled windbreakers, worn-out baseball caps, dirty dungarees and sneakers.
While hundreds of civilians converge on office buildings and shops, this craggy-faced force marches in the opposite direction, away from the big buildings. At dusk, the migration resumes, in reverse.
"They don't want to be caught sleeping in hallways and businesses," said Jerry, 51, a homeless Vietnam veteran in Hackensack.
Jerry is one of 250,000 veterans - half of them Vietnam vets - who'll be living on the streets on any given night across America. In military terms, that's the equivalent of 17 infantry divisions.
`I hate it'
"Some like the life, the freedom," said Jerry. "I hate it."
In New Jersey, 8,300 veterans - up from an estimated 7,000 in 2001 - are living on the street, said John Kuhn, chief of homeless services at the VA hospital's Lyons campus in Bernards Township. He attributed the increase to the economy, and the high cost of living in New Jersey.
Help is on the way, say Washington officials.
President Bush has signed the Homeless Veterans Comprehensive Act - the largest assault ever on the plight of America's homeless veterans. It authorizes nearly $1 billion for programs to aid homeless veterans over the next five years, covering everything from job training to dental care, from substance abuse programs to housing.
A congressional oversight committee began hearings on the implementation of the act earlier this month, asking Veterans Administration officials how they plan to make it work.
The goal is to end chronic homelessness among veterans within 10 years, said Rep. Christopher H. Smith, a New Jersey Republican and chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee and the bill's prime sponsor.
Jerry, the skeptic, isn't sold on the battle plan.
"Do the math," he said, referring to the hundreds of agencies that will be competing for grants. By the time the money filters down to local agencies, there might be enough left to "buy some McDonald's funny money and a couple of bus passes," Jerry said sarcastically.
He was referring to the $5 McDonald's gift certificates that a lot of homeless veterans use to buy food. Paul Bleland, director of the Bergen County Division of Veterans Services, calls the gift certificates "morale boosters."
Jerry's biggest morale boost came in 1971, the day he got out of Vietnam. His mood changed in the United States. Some people were still sore about the war. He remembers being spit on as he walked through an airport in uniform. "I asked for my luggage, took my uniform off, and threw it in the garbage," he said. "I flew home from Chicago quite drunk."
His next 25 years seemed productive enough. He spent a month in the Vermont wilderness to "decompress." Back in Bergen County, he amassed a business resume as a company personnel trainer, purchasing manager, and designer of inventory systems. Not bad, he said, for a man with a G.E.D. and community college courses. One item he didn't include in his resume: alcoholic. He ignored co-workers' questions about `Nam: "Did you kill anybody?"
He was earning a salary in the high five figures when he was downsized out of a job. His marriage went bad. His savings ran out.
He lived for several months at a local homeless shelter, where the food was as salty as the language, then moved out onto the street.
"I got tired of sleeping in a room with 25 other men and women, listening to the same problems day in, day out," said Jerry. "I felt it was better staying out there."
Using survival skills
Survival skills honed on reconnaissance missions in Cambodia came in handy in his search for a home. He avoided areas with cigarette butts, beer cans, or trampled grass - sure signs that another human had been there.
"I tended to spend most of my time alone," he said. "It's much safer that way. There's no protection in numbers. The very people who you think will protect you are some of the ones who will rob your shoes."
His first "home" was a gully on the banks of the Hackensack River, behind a shopping center on South River Street. He cased the spot so thoroughly, he knew when the police came by, knew which stores stayed open late. The roof of his house was a piece of cardboard, camouflaged by twigs and leaves. As a buffer against cold weather, he wrapped garbage bags around his legs.