(Photo: Eve Fouché)
When 62-year-old David Smedley and 27-year-old Roberto Hernandez clocked in to work at 7:30 in the morning this past winter, they did so knowing that their entire day would be spent searching the streets for homeless people. It wasn’t glamorous work, but for Hernandez, Smedley, and 23 other veterans, it was a major step in their efforts to shed their own homeless label.
While all 25 veterans from U.S. VETS who worked on a homeless survey for the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA) came with a unique back-story about how they went from the military to the streets, the one thing they all have in common is the burning desire to find employment now. And LAHSA is doing everything it can to help them with that search.
“They’re looking for pretty much anything – they all want to work,” Senior Policy and Planning Analyst at LAHSA Lisa Snyder said. “It doesn’t matter what.”
For Snyder and the rest of LAHSA, the veterans quickly proved themselves with their military-honed promptness and willingness to do anything.
“Being in the military, everything has to be done at a certain time,” Hernandez said. “We had to get up early to catch the train to be there by 7:30. So I’d be up at 6 in the morning. We got to the LAHSA building at 7:30 everyday, went out, hit the pavement hard, and tried to find as many people as we could. Being in the military helped us out a lot.”
Hernandez was born at County/USC hospital in Los Angeles, and at 22 he joined the Navy. After spending the next four years in Japan, he reentered civilian life without a permanent place to stay and no job prospects to speak of, and he quickly landed in U.S. VETS housing. “I’m at U.S. VETS, so technically it is homeless,” he said. “The navy was my first job.”
Hernandez says his time on the streets put his military training to work, and he came away from the experience with far more than he came in with.
“I found out things I didn’t know about homeless people and these streets, and how you think you’re in a bad situation, but there are people out there in a really bad situation,” Hernandez said. “For me, it was like, if you approach them, approach them at a certain distance and see if they want to talk, and let them know that you were in the same situation too. I’m on your page. I haven’t suffered as much as you, but I’m on the same count.”
Smedley had a similar takeaway from his time doing the homeless survey. Born and raised in Colorado, Smedley spent five years in the naval reserve after being drafted during Vietnam, spending three years on active duty aboard the USS Midway.
“Basically, I went through a divorce, an operation, personal things,” Smedley said. “Alcoholism has been my downfall, but that’s been corrected in the last five years. I ended up homeless two years ago.”
Unfortunately for Smedley, and unlike Hernandez, it took a while for Smedley to get into the U.S. VETS program because he just wasn’t aware it existed. “I wouldn’t have been homeless two years ago if I knew this program existed,” he said. “For those coming back from Afghanistan and Iraq, they need to go through programs with counselors. Don’t let them out in the street and say, ‘Good luck.'”
By spending time on the streets himself, Smedley knew how to go about approaching homeless people.
“First of all, it’s ‘Would you like to have lunch?'” he said. “If you approached them to say I’m here to do a homeless count, they don’t want to be associated with it.”
Smedley was on the older end of the group doing the homeless count, but age wasn’t a factor when it came to the men finding a rapport with each other.
“They called me the OG,” he said, laughing. “I was the oldest. Most of the kids were in their 40s, they were a good group of guys. They listened, and one thing I really did appreciate was they had the same kind of passion I had. Out in the street, we’d give money out of our own pockets.”
Hernandez agreed that age wasn’t an issue because of their mutual backgrounds. “I think that’s a military thing; we all relate,” he said. “They talk about how it was for them, in the Navy. They would talk about a certain port in Thailand and things happening back in the 80s. All of us were from different eras, different branches, but whenever we were together, we were all good and on the same page.”
As for telling their personal stories about how they ended up homeless, that was spoken about less openly. “We don’t really talk about it that much,” Hernandez said. “Every now and then you bring it up because you want to relate to someone, you got to be on common ground. Like, what happened to you? When we were doing this thing, that’s how I kind of found out.”
Should they need to give a reference to an employer, LAHSA would be a good choice, as Snyder came away from the experience with rave reviews. “They showed up here every morning at 7:30 a.m., which means they had to get up at whatever-oh-hundred hour to be here,” she said. “They were all here every day on time. They were prepared to do whatever needed to be done.”
But preparation and promptness can only get someone so far in California’s rapidly advancing economy. For vets whose primary work experience is in the military, they lack some of the technical know-how that makes them extreme victims of the skills gap that is hamstringing the California economy. Of the veterans of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, a whopping 205,000 of them across the country are unemployed.
The skills gap is especially glaring when it comes to young veterans who haven’t had the training to do civilian jobs; the 2012 unemployment rate for veterans 18-24 was 20.4 percent, over five percent higher than non-veterans in the same age group. With such dismal employment numbers, it’s no surprise that 13 percent of all homeless adults in the country are veterans.
As for what separates a former veteran that’s been on the streets from any other applicant for a position, both Smedley and Hernandez waste no time pondering the question. “Wisdom,” Smedley said. “Close to 40 years of wisdom. Work ethic. A lot of kids don’t have a work ethic, to just get up in the morning and brush your teeth.”
“My biggest trait would be whatever I do, I go at it 100 percent,” Hernandez said. “Whatever job you give me, I’m going to complete that before the day is over. If you hire a military guy, you can definitely rely on them. They’re going to work hard for you. If I had my own company or whatever, I’d hire a military guy before any other guy.”
Smedley attributes the startling rate of homelessness for vetereans to the service itself.
“I think when you’re in third world countries…you go through a traumatic thought process in your mind,” he said. “I saw a lot of poverty. I think people that have seen poverty, war, death, a lot of different things, that makes a difference. It’s hard to fit back into the system.”
It’s hard, but Smedley, Hernandez, and 23 other veterans are doing everything in their power to get back on track. They just need the opportunity.
If you or someone you know is interested in hiring or finding out more about these veterans, you can contact U.S VETS representatives here: Katherine Gibbs at 310-864- 5262 or email@example.com and Cherrie Lechuga at 562-200-7318 or firstname.lastname@example.org.