Homeless Vets Still Suffer in Phoenix Despite Claims Otherwise

It's a typical Monday morning for Joe Simek, a veterans advocate at the Justa Center, a day program for homeless seniors in downtown Phoenix.

He stops filling a plastic bag with toiletries for a homeless veteran to chat about his background and his job. Simek is retired Army, served for 27 years — in Germany, Vietnam, Desert Storm. He worked at the Pentagon. His mantra was always, "Serve the solider," something he practices to this day.

In his current position at this nonprofit, that means a lot of paperwork. Some homeless vets show up without proof they served, let alone what they need to get Social Security and medical benefits. Simek and his colleagues work closely with the Veterans Administration to get necessary documentation.

Last summer, a man named Charles Ackles came to town from Oklahoma, where he was homeless. Ackles is tall, silver-haired, and handsome at 85. He sits down in Simek's office and tells a story about coming back to Phoenix looking for money from a used-appliance business he once owned. His memory of how the business ended is that he offered his partner champagne, and she threw a cup of coffee in his face.

There's no money, Simek says with a sigh after Ackles leaves; and, yes, the man has advanced dementia. He also served for four years in the Army in the 1940s. Simek was able to track down his paperwork and get the hernia surgery he desperately needed when he showed up last summer. He's doing much better now. But months later, Ackles still lives at a shelter.

Simek tells a few more stories, then he has to go. There are two new homeless veterans waiting to speak with him. Could be worse; there were five the Monday before.

For about a decade, the Justa Center has sat on the edge of the homeless campus in downtown Phoenix, serving dozens of people 55 and over. It's a place where you can get a hot shower and a hot meal, as well as laundry service once a week, a library, and most important for some, companionship and a roof on an inclement day.

Historically, about half of the Justa Center's population has comprised veterans, according to the organization. Lately, with efforts by the Obama administration, that number has dropped. Today, it's about a third of the 130 current clients, says Scott Ritchey, the Methodist minister who runs Justa.

The homeless veteran problem in Phoenix is better, Ritchey says. But it's far from solved — despite what you've seen in headlines.

A few days before Christmas, Mayor Greg Stanton's office made a bold statement.

"Phoenix Puts Roof Over Head of All Chronically Homeless Vets," announced a December 19 press release, followed December 23 by a statement from the White House, headlined, "Phoenix Reduces Its Population of Chronically Homeless Veterans to Zero."

The media bit hard, with equally bold headlines:

• "Phoenix Says It's the First City to End Chronic Homelessness Among Veterans" — The Washington Post

• "Program to End Homelessness Among Veterans Reaches a Milestone in Arizona" — The New York Times

• "How Phoenix Ended Homelessness Among Vets" USA Today

It is true that after years of planning, in a relatively short period of time (weeks), with a considerable amount of money (millions of dollars), Phoenix put more than 200 chronically homeless veterans into housing — a significant move in an ongoing effort by the Obama administration to end the homeless veteran problem, which the president aims to do by 2015. Ending homelessness also has been a big priority for Mayor Stanton.

A few blocks from City Hall, Ritchey sat at his desk at the Justa Center and wrote a statement in an e-newsletter released March 4:

"No More Homeless Vets? That's News to Us!"

"No one would celebrate the end of chronic homelessness among veterans in Phoenix more than those of us at Justa Center, but unfortunately, it is just not true . . .

"Though the end of chronic homelessness among a certain segment of veterans in Phoenix is true, it is part of a much larger story. The criteria used was narrow and specific, applying to only 222 housed veterans. Obviously, there are more than 222 veterans who are homeless in Maricopa County, and though their numbers are decreasing, they have not been eliminated.

"Today, about 30 percent of Justa Center members are homeless veterans who have fallen through the cracks or are dealing with complicated conditions such as dementia, schizophrenia, and felony backgrounds . . . The Justa Center will continue to support, advocate, and assist our older veterans until there truly is ZERO homelessness among our veterans."

So who's right?

New Times caught up with Scott Ritchey in 2008, when John McCain and Barack Obama were running for president and Ritchey was openly critical of Arizona's senior senator for his lack of support for homeless veterans.

In the past six years, "we've gotten a little more vulnerable and a little older," Ritchey says of the population he and his small staff serve. Justa's day program — a short walk from Central Arizona Shelter Services — is housed in a small, shabby building with tiny offices and a sitting room with worn linoleum and old couches.

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5 comments
alfred.jones
alfred.jones

My name is A.J. and I am a navigator for the Veteran Multi-Service Center in Philadelphia. When I heard that chronically homeless veterans had all been housed in Arizona, I was in awe. Having been in homeless outreach I know just how difficult a task that is. I have sent many e-mails to various organizations in Arizona and no one has responded. I would like get a better understanding of what Arizona does and how I can implement some of those same tactics here in Philadelphia. I am a army veteran and formerly homeless veteran as well, so I have been on both sides of the fence, and have also been incarcerated. I am trying to network and learn as much as I can , because helping veterans is my job and it consumes me sometimes. Lets end veteran homelessness country wide. Lets burn the candle on both ends and I will meet you all in the middle. My e-mail address is Alfred.jones@vmcenter.org. Looking forward to hearing from you and peace and be safe

HarryY
HarryY

ExpertShot is right. You're not actually contradicting anyone, Amy. They all agree that there are more homeless veterans to serve and that there is alot of hard work to do stil....yet you just want to see if you can call someone a liar so that you seem like you're doing investigative journalism...but you're not. 

ExpertShot
ExpertShot topcommenter

The battle of the headlines - how stupid.  Every one of those articles, Amy, states that homeless problems still exist in Phoenix.  You should know better than anyone that headlines do not tell the story and are usually written by the marketing department.  Provide me with one quote from ONE of the stories you cite that actually makes the statement that there are no more homeless veterans in Phoenix - THEN you can write a headline like you did, which is just as bogus as the ones you cite.

rejco
rejco

Homeless Veterans are all over Phoenix; the veterans they ended homelessness for are a VERY NARROW selected few homeless veterans who met certain criteria mandates, and they were not placed into REGULAR HOUSING; they were placed into institutional settings that will most likely disrespect the veterans so much that the veterans will end-up back on the streets.

 
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