[Ed. note: This post contains challenging descriptions of homelessness, physical and sexual assault. Many Democrats think we can have programs and Bureaus to fix problems. Yang thinks we need to just pay the people directly. We’ve actually tried both approaches. Some of us can comment on which of these work better....Here Nidia discusses her experience with VA administrations and what she’s seen.
End Ed. Note]
The Homeless Experience of Nidia D.
I do not share this part of my chaotic life to make you all sad. I want you to see why I often talk about the homeless and mental health care. I want these people to get the help they need. The assistance currently “available” for those struggling is not enough. The regulations for government assistance prevents people from getting help. Andrew Yang's policies can actually help these people. Time to answer the big question:
- How did I end up homeless?
In 2002 I was sexually assaulted by a soldier in the Army. I reported it immediately and spoke to Criminal Investigative Division (CID- Military Detectives). There was a trial, he was found guilty, and he served a full 3 week sentence in Ft. Leavenworth before returning to his unit. I was made fun of by other female soldiers in my unit for “making women look weak". A male sergeant once closed a formation talk with "remember soldiers: don't let yourselves get raped" and laughed loudly. The female soldiers joined on the laughs. After having (what I now know was) a panic attack working in the Dining Facility, I was sent to the Command Sergeant Major’s (CSM’s) office. I was told by the CSM that I made the Army look bad for "letting it happen to me" and needed to be discharged. He threatened to take my Honorable discharge away if I spoke to medical. Got my Honorable discharge, but because I didn't serve my full contract, benefits like the G.I Bill and the job I had in my contract were taken away. (I got partial G.I Bill benefits back in 2013).
-“Just get a job” they said. “It'll be easy” they said.
I looked for work after getting my discharge papers (DD2-14). I was a 92G (cook) and worked in restaurants for a few years before I joined the Army. I got some “we'll let you know" responses. My savings ran out and couldn’t pay rent anymore. Since nobody hired me, I became homeless 6 months after my Honorable discharge. Since then, I've spent almost 10 years traveling around the country, in and out of homelessness, trying to get back on my feet.
I tried getting work while homeless. I was hired at a fast food place, only to get fired about 2 weeks later for a panic attack. Some VA counselors suggested temp work. Temp agencies can offer a job here and there to people, but it's not sustainable income (people can get about $60 for the day and maybe get another job offer in a day or a few weeks). The amount of work and pay varies. If hired, that's enough money to get a shower and maybe a cheap meal. I learned that some motels are willing to let the homeless use the showers for about half the room price (still expensive for those with 0 income). I tried to get vocational rehabilitation through the VA. After years of waiting, I was denied because of potential issues with keeping employment due to my mental health.
I have these difficulties with an Honorable discharge. Imagine the struggles of getting a job for a homeless veteran with a General or lower discharge, or one who had problems with the law. There are homeless people that got out of prison and want to do better in their lives. They leave prison hoping to get a 2nd chance in life, but people don't want to give them the chance, (or they have a hard time readjusting back to civilian routine). There's a similar struggle with some homeless combat veterans with readjustment. Some have no family or friends to help them, so they're stuck in the same position. Some homeless people choose to commit a crime to go back in prison for housing and medical care. Thankfully there are people like Fred the Felon’s Truckers for Yang, Alley Kat’s Reparationmovement.org, and the owner of Homeboy Bakery, that recognize this problem and are helping people with a criminal record. If we had more entrepreneurs like them, the amount of homelessness would drop.
- Hoarders: Paperwork Edition
The VA tried to say nothing happened to me in the Army at first, but I had a suitcase pouch full of paperwork as proof. How can I have CID court paperwork if this case doesn't exist? I have multiple copies on paper and at least 2 flash drives. Growing up, my mom worked as a secretary and taught me the importance of paperwork. My mom and grandmother depended on government assistance. It didn't offer much; we ate a lot of rice and beans. I used to stand in a line with grandma and get a brick of cheese and other pantry goods. Food in these pantries are limited, not many healthy choices, and they stopped giving away the brick of cheese. Holding onto the paperwork helped me fight for VA compensation/disability. I lost many items while homeless, but still have the original paperwork when I was discharged.
Lost paperwork is one of the biggest reasons homeless veterans don't get help.
It could take months or years to get another DD2-14. Trying to get VA compensation will take years, and talking to a lot of medical/office workers. There are Veteran Service Officers (VSOs) that can help, but they can be difficult to contact. Paperwork to the VA gets lost often. After years of dealing with the VA in several states, I got VA compensation (1st labeled as depressed then went up to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder -PTSD- from Military Sexual Trauma -MST- about 7 years later). I have to be re-evaluated every few years to the VA to see if I still have PTSD symptoms. A paperwork error at the VA in 2016 had my compensation taken away for three months because my PTSD was suddenly gone from my record. Five trips to the VA regional office with a therapist and copies of paperwork got my benefits back. If it weren't for a monthly compensation and kindness from strangers, I would've never got out of homelessness.
-People say “I look fine”. Why am I getting VA Compensation/Disability?
I am diagnosed with PTSD from MST, anxiety and major depression. I get flashbacks and problems falling and staying asleep due to anxiety symptoms and nightmares. Light sounds wake me up. Socializing feels dangerous. I have to give myself a “I can handle life" pep talk before going outside to socialize, and some days that can take over an hour. I sometimes “blank out”. I have difficulty being with anyone romantically, since touching me in that way triggers flashbacks. Sometimes random men's faces change to his. I'm hyper-alert, shake like a chihuahua, and get panic attacks. I found out the hard way that "just getting over it" isn't possible (attempt at a relationship ended in disaster). Some family and friends have stopped being a part of my life due to the PTSD symptoms. Not everyone with PTSD are dangerous, but some people think so. Almost 2 decades later, I still have problems getting close to people -even as friends- due to my mental health. I have another reason for the mental obstacle. When I found out I was being discharged, I didn't take it well: I had an almost successful suicide attempt.
In October 2002 (before DD2-14) a civilian friend invited me to a party to try and cheer me up. It turned out to be a rave in a house. I looked around and saw people looking happy under the influence of ecstasy. I thought "this would be a great way to die, I'll just smile and OD"! I asked my friend to take me to the ATM machine. I emptied out my checking account, bought 7 pills and took them all within seconds. It was not the "smiling suicide" that I planned it to be. I went from feeling a little headache, to a migraine, to feeling like my brain was swelling and trying to crack my skull open. I went to the bathroom and tried to be quiet, but the pain was too much. My friend and a few others opened the door and immediately tried to save my life. I threw up, screamed, closed my eyes and felt myself fade away. They told me I was out for a little while, and my body temperature was over 105 degrees. I slowly came to, opened my eyes and saw I was lying down naked with wet, cold towels around me. They saved my life (thank you Candace T, Justin S. and others), but not without some side effects. Hearing music in my head is ok. But my memory, speech and concentration has been messed up since. Sorry for anyone who has had to introduce themselves to me more than twice!
- Why not ask family for help?
Not everyone comes from a supportive family. My parents and some family members reject me for being LGBT(came out years before the MST). Three family members let me stay with them for a while over the years, but my PTSD symptoms were too much for them to stay long term (example: when my messed up sleep pattern messed with their sleep). There’s a large number of homeless people that are LGBT. Some have been on the streets since they were kicked out of their families in their teens. Two LGBT veterans were homeless because of Don’t Ask Don't Tell. One in Boston got caught owning a naked pic of his boyfriend during an inspection and was discharged. He still kept worn out pics of his now dead (lost to cancer) boyfriend. Another got sexually assaulted by a sergeant. Instead of the sergeant getting in trouble - the soldier was reported as gay, then got discharged. Neither got help from the VA. If the homeless veteran doesn’t have an honorable discharge, the VA will turn a blind eye.
Recently I met Anthony, a homeless (dishonored for fighting) Marine veteran who has been diagnosed with schizophrenia but can't get mental healthcare outside of a free clinic. There are free clinics in the U.S, but they are limited on time, supplies, and type of treatment. Many homeless people suffer through mental health problems. Without a dependable social support and access to mental health care, these people are left on the streets untreated without a way to improve their lives.
The majority of homeless people I have met in my life have been through sexual assault. This is one of the reasons homeless people end up with substance abuse problems. How does a homeless person stop pain with limited access to medicine and therapy? Around 2008, a homeless man with a crack pipe saved me from getting kidnapped near Central Park. We spoke afterwards. He told me why he saved me: ever since he saw his step father sexually abuse his sister, he swore to protect any woman in trouble. He was sexually assaulted as a teen. He said he wished he could stop his habit, but has been using it since living on the street at age 14 (also disowned for being LGBT) and feels like he can't stop alone. How is a homeless person like him able to get help if the habit he's had for most of his life disqualifies him from getting said help? Yet, society calls him the bad guy when they see him, instead of the rich man in his Escalade that tried to kidnap me. Not all substance abusers are bad people. They are people that learned the wrong coping skills. They don't know how to make the pain go away. They need rehabilitation and guidance. They shouldn't be treated like criminals.
The same goes for homeless veterans. Marijuana keeps the nightmares away, helps calm the anxiety down, and makes me feel comfortable socializing. It's also a disqualifier for government assistance and many potential jobs. Therapists and psychiatrists can refuse to treat someone for using pot (it happened to me at the Los Angeles VA in 2013). There are other issues that stop homeless people from getting help. People need a current I.D. and address to apply for assistance. Veterans with an Honorable discharge can get I.D. from the VA Healthcare system. If it's less than General discharge, the veteran is on their own. Some states allow the use of cross streets as an address to get an I.D. and for voter registration. Some states also have programs like PATH that gives people emergency money, for those that qualify. If the person has a substance abuse history, even if they have been sober for years, someone else like a counselor may take over the bank account. So all a homeless person needs to do is to stay in a shelter and be drug free, and they'll get help… Right?
-Why don't homeless people on the streets stay in a shelter?
The answer is they are often overcrowded and create horrible conditions. Some people are trying to raise awareness on this problem. Through Brutum F. I met a veteran on Twitter named Joshua that works with the homeless. He made a post about the harsh living conditions in shelters across the country. Here's my shelter experiences.
In 2003, I stayed in a veteran shelter in Boston. This shelter was a co-ed shelter. We shared the common floor, but we had separate floors for the bedrooms. At night the common floor became one of the assigned sleeping areas for the men due to all beds being filled. They set up cots close together. The women had one floor, and it had no windows. We were all sick with a cold for months. The shelter had some mice and mold problems (not as bad as the one in NYC). Some of the men were nice, but I found out (after getting slapped on the ass) that some of the men there were sex offenders. Most of the women were nice to me - and called for help quickly when I woke up at 1:00am screaming in pain. Mass General did the emergency gall bladder surgery, and I stayed one month recovering at the hospital. Getting medical care (especially mental health care) in other states has been more difficult (near impossible in rural areas without a car). As for getting help, this shelter had over 200 people and 4 counselors to help them all. Since help was limited and the sex offenders were being creepy, I had to leave the shelter.
Around 2008 In NYC, the VA suggested I stay in a shelter for 3 months so I could qualify for housing. I lasted two weeks. This was a veteran shelter in the Bronx. There were daily fist fights over the which way the fan was facing, how long someone took in the showers, limited supplies - the usual tensions from overcrowding. There were mice and mold everywhere. There were also plumbing issues. The violence continued, and I didn't want to be punched next. As a homeless person, I did not qualify for housing assistance unless I was in a shelter. Got that? No housing assistance unless the homeless person has a roof over their head. There are more homeless people than shelter space. If there's no room for a bed, no way to get benefits either. I felt safer in the streets. I slept nicely in 2007 near the cameras next to the Mexican border (several miles away from San Diego). Same with the Greyhound stations where I slept. NYC isn't friendly to the homeless. I was hit on the ankle by NYPD with a baton for sleeping on the bench, and a few have threatened to put me in jail if I didn't “find somewhere out of their sight to sleep”. I had to sneak into apartment buildings on rainy/snowy days and hide.
As a native New Yorker, I wanted to stay in the city, but I couldn't stay or I'd get nowhere. There are homeless people in NYC (and other areas in the country) that have waited over four years for housing assistance. Where’s all the affordable housing Bloomberg spoke so much about? I continued to move around to different states, asking for help from the VA, struggling to get benefits and mental health care while struggling to survive. It was some time between NYC and TN that I got my VA compensation for PTSD approved. There was some delay to issuing the check, but I got paid. What did my homeless veteran self end up doing with the back pay and my monthly income? I got an apartment (thanks to some help).
-Stranger (no longer in) Danger!
In 2011, I ended up in Tennessee. As I cried at a gas station with my belongings wondering where I'm going to live next, a woman drove up to me and asked if I needed a ride somewhere. I told her I had nowhere to go. She said she'll help me find a place, and drove me to a shelter. The only shelter available in that part of Tennessee rejected me for having PTSD. One look at my medication bottles and I was labeled a liability. This is when Doreen R. decided to take me into her home for a month, even though she had no idea who I am.
There was no public transportation. She drove me around to look for an apartment, volunteered to be my leasing reference, and helped me shop for food and supplies once I got the lease. She is the woman with the huge heart! I stayed in this TN apartment for a year and a half. Unfortunately I couldn't get help from the VA there because the rural transportation assistance was cancelled in that area. The closest VA there was about an hour away in Knoxville. Since I had no car and there was no public transportation, I couldn't get the mental health care I needed in TN. At one point I was in crisis, so I called the National Suicide Hotline for help. They hung up on me – twice. Realizing I was not going to get the help I needed there either, I decided to take a chance with a random city. I saved up with some of my monthly income, gave all my belongings to Doreen, took a taxi, then bought a one way ticket to L.A. I've been living in this apartment now for 8 years. I studied music in college. Playing music is one of the few activities I've been able to do around people without the constant feeling of being in danger. I try to help homeless people out as much as I can, sometimes giving them items they need like socks and feminine products. Toothbrushes are also needed. In shelters across the country they are in short supply of basic hygiene items. Sometimes homeless people just ask me to listen to their stories. I know how lonely it can be living on the streets.
When I met Andrew Yang, I told him about reaching out to the homeless. He told me about his policies: $1000/month was just the beginning! He has 150+ policies that can help Americans, including the homeless. He wants all Americans to have healthcare - including mental health care. People like Anthony and the glass pipe wielding ‘woman saving hero’ can get the help they need. Putting banking services in post offices can not only provide money, but also can eliminate the mailing address problem that stops homeless people from getting an I.D. Right now they can get their mail in shelters if they're staying there. Some motels and a few churches also allow the homeless to get mail there (but not good for I.D registration address because it's not permanent). With this policy, they'll be able to register the address or cross streets of the post office (rules change depending on state). Homeless outreach can be easier when several homeless people go to one post office. They can then apply for work or assistance, since not all homeless people are lazy. Yang’s “More Than a Handshake” policy can help veterans get work, get an education in college or in trade school, get them signed up through the VA sooner for benefits, and gets help for those struggling with their health. Yang's policy to decriminalize drugs that have medical use can allow people to use medication of choice (or if struggling with addiction) seek help without risk of going to jail. The Freedom Dividend can give them a chance to get their lives back together. The current system has too many obstacles, and leads to dead ends -sometimes literally.
-If homeless people get $1000/month, won't they just spend it on useless crap, gambling or substances?
Some might, but many homeless people want help because they don't like the situation they're in. People chat and are friendly with me now. But when I was homeless, people treated me like an object on the streets that's blocking the path for the rest of society. Nobody likes to be dehumanized. Why treat people that need help like they're trash? Why not provide the help with less obstacles? Can we also provide the rural areas with more services like transportation services and more clinics so the homeless don't have to travel to a city for help? Maybe we can, since more money will be put into communities with the Freedom Dividend.
-What about the other candidates policies? Can't they also help the homeless?
Minimum wage increase only helps those that can get work. It doesn't help the disabled. It doesn't help the parent that’s staying with their kids while the other parent works (which is the typical dynamic of a homeless family). It doesn't help people that don't have hourly wage work. How does minimum wage help me as a musician?
College debt relief only takes care of one kind of debt, and isn't the biggest debt that puts people on the streets (#1 I heard from homeless people are medical debts). There's homeless people that beat cancer, but not the bills afterwards. Homeless elderly people, some with obvious dementia, can't afford to stay in nursing homes, so they wander the streets. Some disabled homeless are using broken wheelchairs, crutches, shoes. Medicare for all sounds good, but more has to be done to address the costs of supplies, and especially the availability of treatment. The VA provides free healthcare for veterans, but the quality of healthcare is, in my experience, frustrating. I'm still without a therapist, and had bad experiences with VA's medical treatment. The wait time for care can take months. VA Healthcare is a mess and it's not just me saying so. There is a Facebook page with over 20,000 veterans with complaints about the VA healthcare system.
This is why I think there should be a choice for veterans to use private doctors. After my VA experience, I choose care outside the VA. If there's going to be universal healthcare for all, the wait time issue (like the ones seen with the VA and free clinics) will need to be addressed, along with quality of treatment and lack of supplies.
The current shelters in the U.S are in bad shape. There are people across the country saying they don't want shelters built in their neighborhood, but say they want to help the homeless. So where are these people going to go? People say “go elsewhere” without an actual destination. When they do go to shelters, it's overcrowded and are limited in help and supplies. Sending the homeless off to ‘cheaper areas' doesn't solve the homeless problem. Addressing the root of the problems, like Andrew Yang is doing, will help these people.
This is my story, one among many. Everyone has their own challenges, some are sharper than others. What I hope you took from mine, is that there are many people that desperately want and deserve help. That an efficient and simple approach is needed to actually succeed. All the programs and bureaucracies I dealt with had the biggest problems. What helped me the most? Cash. Cash payments are simple, powerful and empowering. They enabled me to get housing and to find purpose in music. They could do the same or more, or something else for others. Its not for us to judge their condition or purposes but to help them. Only Andrew Yang’s Freedom Dividend offers this power. So please, do all you can to support his candidacy for everyone it will help.
And finally, Please be kinder to the homeless!