My social worker at the Vet Center here described my life right now as "a place where everything is dangerous". She's right. I have to pay attention to where I am, what I'm doing, who is around, what's happening around me. I'm jittery a lot. The tremors come and go. Some of my muscles are sore from being tensed up most of the time. I disassociate for hours at a time, which is probably my body and brain's way of turning down the stress and anxiety.
It's especially hard to trust anyone enough to ask for help. Asking for help means retracting the shields enough to let someone else in on my problems. The VA grant/per diem (aka transitional housing) program was supposed to help me solve most of my problems. I'd get my VA disability claim reviewed and accepted, rent would be cheap so I could put money towards paying bills off, and I'd get a favorable rent reference when I moved out and into permanent (aka 'normal') housing.
One of the things you get by being homeless is extra time to think. Sometimes that's good, sometimes it's not. The extra time is useful for figuring things out, sometimes.
I've really tried to look at my time in the program, see what went wrong, see what my part in the whole thing was. There are a few important things that I could have done differently, if the PTSD and anxiety and depression weren't fucking with my brain. If I was "normal" and not dealing with mental health issues. There were guys in the program that seemed to have no trouble with it, even guys who had just come from places like, say, prison.
Not every veteran has PTSD. Some have different mental health issues, others have drug and alcohol issues, and some are okay in the head, but they did something really stupid and went to prison as a result. I'm sure my particular mix of issues isn't completely unique, especially among veterans. My providers at the VA Hospital and the Vet Center tell me I'm not alone, that they see my kind of problems in veterans of all shapes and sizes.
I suppose you could say that the program just wasn't the right fit or that I didn't try hard enough or whatever lame. ass. excuse. you want to come up with. That's not how I see it. Overall, I came out of transitional housing in worse shape than went I went into the program.
I'm really wrestling with this idea of what went wrong and I keep coming back to I wouldn't have been homeless if I didn't have PTSD to deal with. I'd have done all right in school, I'd have graduated by now, and I'd be somewhere in the world hacking and getting paid for doing so. Of course, things may not have turned out that way, but why wouldn't they?
This is, of course, a really dangerous question. It's so easy to start asking questions like this and have it spiral into much worse questions to ask. There are both no answers and an infinite number of answers to the question of what if I didn't have this disability.
This disability. Post traumatic stress disorder. (Not "post traumatic stress". Leaving the word disorder off makes it seem normal, that it is somehow not a bad thing. It is a bad thing. It sucks to have this. Anyway, now that we're clear on that...)
Acknowledging the fact that I have a disability has been hard. Accepting myself even though I have a disability has been really hard. Admitting it to others is even worse. I don't want to be treated differently, I don't want special favors, and I don't want anyone's pity.
(Now that we're clear on that point too... :)
Going to Porchlight and asking for help as a homeless veteran was one of the most difficult things I've ever had to do, because asking for help was admitting that I was in a situation that I could not solve on my own. No one wants to be homeless, but really no one wants to be a homeless vet. Homeless veterans are a problem that the VA is trying to correct. Get them all off the streets and into permanent housing. Make the problem go away. Being the problem can kinda affect your self esteem in a negative way.
Transitional housing, for me, was a constant reminder of that. The staff there always made it a point to remind me that I was homeless "according to the law". They talked about transitional housing was a recovery process, which sounded a lot like saying "you're broken and need to be fixed". At the same time, I'd have case managers knock on my door or call when they knew I'd be asleep. They'd leave me papers slid under my door in the middle of the night so they wouldn't have to deal with me face to face. They'd give me papers to sign that were clearly bogus. The chow hall was unbearably loud at meal times, with some people yelling at each other and someone else turning the TV up louder and louder to overcome the yelling.
The "peer support specialist" once refered to my PTSD as "that la la place".
There was always the threat of screwing up somehow and being kicked out. "Not doing this may negatively affect your participation in the program" was a common addition to meeting and other notices. "The rules are a lot harder and stricter at Tomah (another VA facility in Wisconsin). We'll have to crack down here if you guys don't shape up and follow the rules."
My personal favorite: "You guys are lucky to even be here." No one in a program of any kind for homeless people is lucky. Being homeless is the exact opposite of being lucky.
I've learned through experience that an environment like that is toxic. If you fall into a huge vat of toxic chemicals, your only hope is getting out of the vat and hopefully getting yourself cleaned off ASAP.
Stay in the vat, you die. Get the fuck out of the vat, you live.
The day I moved out, none of the staff said "goodbye" or "good luck" or "sorry". No "we're still here for you if you need help." No handshake. Nothing.
They didn't even try to fake giving a fuck.
No one from Porchlight has called to see if I'm all right.
My case manager did call once to let me know I needed to turn in the keys in, or the sheriff would be coming after me to get them.
When I turned in the keys, the assistant housing manager either didn't know or didn't give a fuck that when I walked out I'd be on the streets again. This probably isn't in any book on etiquette, but "Have a nice day!!" is not what you say to someone you've just made homeless.
On second thought, she definitely didn't even try to fake giving a fuck either.
I'm pretty sure there's a sign up somewhere at Porchlight that says "BY ORDER OF MANAGEMENT, GIVING A FUCK WILL NOT BE TOLERATED. ANYONE SEEN OR HEARD GIVING A FUCK IN ANY FORM IS SUBJECT TO IMMEDIATE TERMINATION."
Up until the time I went downstairs to tell my case manager that I was moving out that day, I hadn't talked to either her or the peer support specialist for about three weeks. I knew I'd been written off because of the eviction. It's a requirement for living in vets hour that you see your case manager once a week though, and by not going downstairs and setting up a meeting, I was breaking a house rule. I didn't have much faith in the whole case management thing by that point anyway-- I knew the eviction was coming. What were they going to do, evict me? It was a battle not worth fighting.
Still, I can't help but wonder, what if I'd been too sick to move during that time? Or worse, committed (or attempted) suicide? Would anyone have come upstairs and knocked on my door to see if I was all right? I didn't spend much time other than to try to sleep at vets house, so if another resident was asked about me the response would have been "he's probably busy with school."
Suicide is not something I consider as an option. No way, no how.
However, I know that for some veterans, suicide is an option of last resort. I know because I see the news reports when a veteran reaches the point where life is shit and nothing is helping, and then they're gone. I'd been in therapy for four years, and I was (and still am) on a shitload of medications when I moved into vets house. I still have work to do, but I'm getting better at dealing with some things, I have some support network built up. It wasn't always this way for me though.
Imagine that an Iraq and/or Afghanistan veteran ends up on the streets. His (although it could just as easily be her) world has unraveled and crumbled around him, and life doesn't make sense, and things are fucked up beyond being fucked up because of PTSD and the shit that results from PTSD. VA Transitional Housing? Three hots and a cot? Fuck yeah, sounds better than shivering his balls off sleeping in the car all winter..
Then, when that veteran gets into the program and it turns out to be just another bite of a big shit sandwich where no one gives a fuck, he reaches the point where there's only one way out.
Maybe he got into some therapy and on some meds, and maybe that took too long to take effect. Maybe he got tired of being reminded he was fucking homeless. Maybe he experienced any or all of the problems I've experienced at vets house, and they just added up to be more than he could handle.
How often did anyone ask him how he was doing?
Has anyone asked how he's adjusting to life in vets house?
When he complained about something, did anyone listen?
Did anyone even consider giving a fuck about more than his rent money?
Just in case anyone reading this is wondering, I am ok. I'm not John Rambo, and quite honestly my vision is bad enough and my hands shaky enough that I couldn't hit a barn wall with a rock standing inside the barn anyway. There's no "crazy Desert Storm vet with PTSD" story here, and there isn't going to be one.
Plain and simple, Porchlight cared more about my rent money than about me as a veteran with a disability, as a homeless person who needed help, and as a human being. I'm happy to be out of the fucked situation that living there had become.
Now that all of this is written down (and off my chest), I'm going to get back to what matters-- rebuilding my life.