A Thanksgiving dinner at the Buffalo Veterans Affairs Medical Center was a happy occasion Sunday for two Vietnam-era soldiers who have known substance abuse and homelessness.
Both credit VA's Health Care for Homeless Veterans program for helping restore their lives.
Niagara Falls resident Michael Fanning, living at City Mission the past 45 days, is moving into a VA-subsidized apartment Tuesday. He'll be able to afford it thanks to $900 he's going to receive monthly from the Department of Veterans Affairs.
"I have an apartment approved, I have an income, and I'm doing good. I have a life to look forward to," said Manning, 55, after a dinner of turkey, sweet potatoes, cranberry sauce and all the other fixings. About 100 needy veterans in all were served, including about 30 who are homeless.
Manning, who said he once had a drinking problem and has a hard time remembering when he last lived somewhere for at least a year, credits the Health Care for Homeless Veterans program for helping him to return to what he hopes will be a more normal life.
For 53-year-old Keith Anderson, an Air Force veteran and VA volunteer, the annual event was a time to feel thankful over the turn his life has taken.
In 1999, the native Buffalonian found himself homeless after losing his wife, house and nearly his life from years of dealing and using drugs, including cocaine, and living a violent lifestyle. Anderson said he also owes his turnaround to the VA homeless veterans program.
"My future looks great. It looks drug-free, I know that," Anderson said. "The VA has done a bang-up job for me. They stuck beside me, they gave me the confidence I needed, the health care I needed and the motivation."
Veterans make up a disproportionate number of homeless in the U.S. -- an estimated one in four people, although just 11 percent of the general adult population. That's the finding of a report issued earlier this month by the National Alliance to End Homelessness.
Herb Wittmeyer, coordinator of the Health Care for Homeless Veterans program, said their office at 1298 Main St. helped about 550 homeless veterans in Western New York between September 2006 and October 2007, mostly from Buffalo and about 95 percent of them men.
The average age of a homeless veteran locally was 50, Wittmeyer said.
Vietnam veterans by far made up the largest homeless veteran group at 43 percent. Veterans of the two Iraq wars since 1990 represent about 12 percent, with those from the current war less than 2 percent.
"In the City of Buffalo, you're looking at a very depressed area. The economy contributes. There are also mental health issues and substance abuse issues, and some homeless veterans are underemployed and can't afford to live," Wittmeyer said.
Fanning, a Niagara Falls High School graduate, held a factory job making farm machinery after his military service, and later worked as a welder.
He was married for two years, but drinking didn't help things.
It helped send him on a downward spiral that Fanning has yet to recover from. The city foreclosed on his home in 2001, he said, for back taxes.
Fanning said he sees a new lease on life with an apartment and guaranteed income.
"Oh man, it was rough. No income, a hard life, I mean I had no life, really. I feel that moving in this apartment will make a better lifestyle for me."
Anderson, at 6-foot-7, once had a professional basketball career in his sights.
The Lafayette High School graduate was once signed to three 10-day contracts with the New Orleans Jazz, never getting into a game, and turned down a chance to play professional ball in Europe to take a job at the Chevrolet plant.
Anderson worked there 21 years, most of the time in truck and auto repair. When he quit in 1996, he was addicted to and dealing cocaine, and "robbing people over drugs and money."
Anderson's wife left him, he lost his house and eventually became homeless for five months before summoning the will to turn his life around.
"Basically, when I look back on it, it was like a death watch, like I was suicidal," Anderson said.
"It's amazing I'm still surviving."
Anderson, who's been off drugs since March 1999, said it's still a struggle not to participate in "the thrill of the night life," but the father of one said he reminds himself that he's "a family man."
"Life is different. It's not easier, but yet [at the same time] without the drugs it's a whole lot easier," said Anderson, who volunteers at the VA four to five times a week, and is a member of True Bethel Baptist Church.
Evangeline Conley, a VA spokeswoman, said there is a network of resources available to those in desperate straits.
"We have some wonderful resources in Western New York that are available for people who may be homeless or at risk of being homeless. Not only here at the VA, but also community organizations and services that are available."