Waiting for Reinforcements

The fighting won't end: Gearing up for another wave of homeless vets

On the first Tuesday in August, Thomas Mullifield, who fought with the Army in Vietnam from 1964 to 1967 and struggled with alcoholism in the 1990s, was engaged in another battle—against the overheated, leaden air filling the residence that he and 149 other vets call home on Commonwealth Avenue in the Bronx. It was the first day of the big heat wave, and Mullifield, with a donation check freshly deposited, was trying to track down air conditioners for the New Era shelter. He found some at a Home Depot in Mount Vernon. Victory.

The rest of the $62,000 (a gift from the New York State Association of Electrical Contractors and IBEW Local 3) was already earmarked for new furniture. But who knows where the cash would come from for a new paint job on the New Era Veterans residence or for the other projects that Mullifield, who works as veterans services director there, wants to tackle at the 13-year-old shelter? "It's unending," he says. So is demand. The waiting list to get into the facility usual holds 30 to 35 names of men and women (there are eight ladies in the residence now) who served in World War II, Korea, Vietnam, the Gulf War, and periods in between. The logjam is a fact of life, Mullifield knows.

But what bothers him are the phone calls he's been getting lately—four or five a week—about Iraq or Afghanistan vets who have no place to stay. None live at New Era yet; they have to go through the city shelter system first. But the fact that they are out there, just as he once was, pisses him off. "I can't see a young kid going through what I went through," he says.

A fulcrum question this political season is whether to set a firm timetable on when to bring the troops home from Iraq. But one way or another, sooner or later, they will come. According to one estimate there will be a million of them. As in the past, some will be fine when they return to civilian life, and some won't.

This summer several area veterans groups are claiming that New York City, for its part, is failing to prepare for the returning warriors—ignoring the lesson lived by thousands of earlier vets who've ended up on the city's streets, in state prisons, or just generally lost. They're upset that the City Council failed to move on a bill drafted by Hiram Monserrate to place Veterans Resource Centers in every borough. They're peeved that Mayor Bloomberg's office of veterans services has a budget of merely $202,000 and a staff of only three. And they're furious that the city is now trying to collect back salary from reservists and guardsmen who stayed on the city payroll when they went overseas years ago.

The Bloomberg administration has responded that it offers veterans lots of benefits, like property tax breaks and preference in hiring for jobs. The city also spends millions indirectly on veterans through the departments of Homeless Services and Health and Mental Hygiene; together those agencies are providing more than $2 million to the New Era residence under current contracts. And when the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs said it was considering consolidating VA hospitals in Manhattan and Brooklyn, Bloomberg told a federal panel that they ought to keep them all open. "It goes without saying that these are all top-priority services, and they all must be maintained," he testified last year. (The VA announced last week that it will keep both facilities open.)

To local vets groups, the city's efforts don't pass muster. "Supporting the troops is more than a slogan. Supporting the troops is putting words into action," says Joe Bello, a Navy vet from the Gulf War era. A property tax break only helps if you can afford to buy a house, Bello points out. Job preferences only assist those in a position to seek such jobs. And a little outreach to returning veterans now, the critics say, could save this generation of vets from having to use city-funded shelters later.

Bello organized an angry rally on the City Hall steps last month featuring a panoply of vets groups: Vietnam Veterans of America, Black Veterans for Social Justice, Incarcerated Veterans Consortium, Veterans for Peace, American Veterans for Equal Rights, and Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA). There were calls for state as well as city action, especially regarding testing vets for exposure to depleted uranium. And there was an undercurrent of political threat, with references to the 300,000 vets in the city and the power they could wield at the ballot box. Local pols had better listen, Bello warned. "If you do not," he said, "like the Bonus Marchers of the 1930s, we will return."

IAVA is already laying the foundation for a political movement with its VoteVets PAC, which funds only candidates who are veterans of the current wars. They're backing candidates in six House races this year, so the value of VoteVets' efforts won't be known until November.

At places like New Era, in the Bronx, vets are fighting more private battles. Many struggle with alcoholism, physical problems like amputations stemming from diabetes, or mental woes like post-traumatic stress disorder. Most residents get veterans benefits of about $600 a month, and many work outside the center. All pay 30 percent of their income to live in one of the single rooms at New Era, one of two shelter facilities in the city that cater exclusively to veterans. It's a permanent residence, so while some residents eventually move on, others stay indefinitely. There are movie nights, poetry groups, music sessions, a gym, counseling. Although residents are supposed to take care of themselves, sometimes there's food on hand for guys who can't afford their own, obtained at a local pantry or through Feed the Children or City Harvest. Mostly, there's company. "They find living here comfortable because they're with veterans and they can relate," Mullifield says. And they're candid about how much they blame their time in uniform for what's happened since.

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