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.

Last summer, Ritchey had two women who were 89. There's a lot of dementia and an increase in mental-health issues. He does acknowledge that things have gotten much better for vets.

When he opened almost 10 years ago, Ritchey called right away, but it took a year for anyone from the Veterans Administration to show up. In three years, they provided no housing for any of his clients.

That was under George W. Bush. Things changed under Obama. But Ritchey insists there are still homeless veterans — he sees new ones just about every day — and he doesn't understand why officials are tossing around words like "eradicate."

Even though he's in the thick of things geographically — and does work with CASS, the VA, and other organizations — Ritchey operates independently, saying he's different and able to be more free with his opinions because his organization subsists entirely on private donations.

He was critical of McCain, and now he's criticizing Stanton and Obama for what he calls their hyperbolic description of the program they've launched.

"If you want to say we've identified 222 people — and this process is in place — that's great. Say that," Ritchey says. "But don't say you've ended the problem for chronically homeless veterans. It's dishonest and then people can't trust you."

New Times provided Stanton spokesman Christian Palmer with a copy of the Justa Center e-newsletter, which Palmer shared with Joan Serviss, executive director of the Arizona Coalition to End Homelessness, the group directly involved in the current housing program, called Project H3 Vets.

Serviss says she'd never heard of the Justa Center or Ritchey (she says her staff had) but put a call into him immediately.

"Ultimately, that's a great example of how we've been responsive to the community. When we hear about somebody who has engaged with somebody as a . . . homeless veteran, we have the resources in place so we can be responsive to them," she says. "We're going to now build a relationship with the Justa Center."

Seth Scott, the mayor's policy director, also had not heard of Justa. He says he understands the concern about hyperbole, but he says Phoenix deserves a lot of credit for creating a bold program that already serves as a model for others, including the Maricopa Association of Governments, which serves communities in metro Phoenix.

Housing First, the program implemented through Project H3 Vets, has a retention rate of about 94 percent, Scott and Serviss say, much higher than previous programs that were tried.

"We don't ever want to pretend that this is a problem that's going away," Scott says. But he says people are so convinced that it's impossible to end homelessness that they need hope — and Phoenix's efforts provide that.

And if someone like Scott Ritchey challenges these efforts?

"We've now given people a way to hold us accountable," Scott says.