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Helping homeless vets With the number of homeless veterans in the region growing, the VA is promoting its programs to help them build new lives

Living on the streets was painful for Daryl Pinkney. But it wasn't the harsh cold or hunger that bothered him -- it was the thought of being away from his children.

"How do you tell your five-year-old and seven-year-old that you're homeless, or live in a shelter?" he said. "How, when you've always lived in a house together?"

Pinkney is one of an estimated 400 homeless veterans in Erie County, and 130,000 homeless veterans nationwide. The issue of homeless veterans in Western New York itself is growing larger, as more men return from the military with the invisible wounds of stress and trauma that prevent them from leading normal lives.

Both homeless and nonhomeless veterans were able to learn of the different programs and services -- from housing to health care to employment -- available to them at the "Stand Down" for U.S military veterans Wednesday in the Central Terminal.

More and more returning veterans are undergoing a similar cycle, said Patrick Welch, director of Daemen College's Center for Veterans and Veteran Family Services. The veterans develop post-traumatic stress disorder from the horrors they've witnessed, or are suffering from traumatic brain injuries. Depending on the severity of TBI, some could suffer from seizures or memory loss.

They lose the ability to hold a job. They begin "couch-hopping," or staying with different family members and friends, Welch said. And eventually, they have no choice but to move to the streets.

"That's when the VA steps in," Welch said. "At this point, we end up finding them abusing drugs or alcohol, and in need of serious assistance."

HUD-VASH, the Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing program, combines voucher rental assistance for homeless veterans with the VA's clinical services. That program assisted Pinkney in his struggle with homelessness.

Pinkney served in the military from 1981 to 1985 on the border of West and East Germany during the Cold War, and earned the rank of sergeant. The position was terrifying, as he witnessed what he said were horrific scenes of people crossing the wall, causing him to develop a stress disorder.

Upon returning he had several jobs but lost his home in 2007 to his ex-wife after a custody battle. He resorted to staying at the Buffalo City Mission.

"And it's difficult to get a job when you're at the mission," Pinkney said. "You don't have clothing for interviews and can't get a haircut or shoes, and you need to make sure your work schedule gets you back in time to find a bed at the shelter -- it fills up quick."

Pinkney learned of HUD-VASH at the City Mission, which had speakers from the VA come in, serve meals and speak to people. They told Pinkney that being reunited with his children was a possibility.

"That's when I knew I had a mission to complete," he said. "And I did." HUD-VASH provided him with an apartment, allowing him to regain custody of his children.

His daughter is in a choir and earns top grades, and Pinkney himself now has two jobs in addition to being a student at Erie Community College.

"The program is truly incredible," he said. "If you need any form of welfare and care about getting it together, they're here for you 110 percent."

Women now make up about 7 percent of the homeless veteran population in Erie County, said Alicia Sholtz, HUD-VASH case manager at VA Health Care. The HUD-VASH program itself caters to 18 women and 32 children, helping them find housing.

PTSD prevents the women from functioning properly, and from filling out paperwork or putting themselves first. Some women come from shelters, or have recently been evicted; some have children or may be pregnant, said Jill LaMantia, manager of the women's veteran program at VA Health Care. Some are fleeing domestic violence.

"When they come back from service, it's like coming back from Mars," LaMantia said. "They experience things we wouldn't believe. They're not the same, and they'll never be the same."

Very few homeless shelters exist in Buffalo for both women and children. Some of the women in the HUD-VASH program are housed through the Salvation Army, while the program issues a voucher and begins to search for a home for them, Sholtz said. If children are involved, the program assists in providing clothing and school supplies.

Several homeless veterans agree that the largest issue for veterans is the lack of awareness about all the housing programs available to them.

Stephen Malicki, 58, of Buffalo, served in the Navy from 1985 to 1988, on the USS Midway in Japan. He found a few jobs upon returning home but currently remains unemployed. He was asked to leave the room he was renting as well and has been homeless ever since.

"I ended up at the mission, became more religious and found a woman online who I've been dating," he said. And though he considers himself lucky for being able to make some progress, he said that the majority of homeless veterans don't have access to the programs available due to a lack of promotion.

Duane Noble, 51, is unemployed but was able to rent an apartment in Cheektowaga through the Western New York Veterans Housing Coalition. Due to depression after serving in the Middle East, he was unable to find a job. He came across the veterans assistance program through word of mouth. He said awareness is an issue for the program, as well as fear of the unknown.

"People worry that they'll go through all the effort just to end up right where they started," he said. "But in reality, I don't know where I'd be without it."

email: meltagouri@buffnews.com