There are around 40,000 homeless veterans in the United States, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. More than 11,000 of them live in California.
Army veteran Bill Bruick spent his last night homeless lying on a tiny patch of dirt, now festooned with a pink flowering shrub behind a Food 4 Less grocery store in Riverside.
“There were no bushes,” Bruick said, pointing to the exact spot still remembering the lump in the ground. “I slept right here. I liked it because nobody could really see me back here. Nobody ever parked back here. I got lucky you know.”
That night in 2013 capped 10 years of living outside a shopping center for the 51-year-old Bruick who resembles a young Charlton Heston.
There are around 40,000 homeless veterans in the United States, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. More than 11,000 of them live in California. The state has seen a 17 percent rise in homeless vets since 2016.
The city of Riverside is the only city in California to end veteran homelessness, according to the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness. It is one of 62 communities in 32 states to do so.
Many homeless vets suffer from substance abuse and mental illness.
Bruick said depression and alcoholism had hobbled him since leaving the Army in 1996. He filled his days drinking beer and vodka. He started early.
“As soon as the liquor store opened at 6 a.m.,” Bruick said. “I’d pass out during the day. Normally, around midnight, I’d stop. Even when I was sick, I’d still force alcohol down me because I would be shaking real bad.”
Seven stints of rehab did nothing for Bruick. But one bout of alcohol poisoning and a letter from his two daughters in Germany expressing a desire to visit inspired change.
“I was like, `Wow, I’ve got to do something,’” Bruick said. “I don’t want them seeing me in this state.”
Around the same time, Riverside was in the midst of embracing then-President Barack Obama’s push to the country’s mayors to end veteran homelessness.
“As a veteran myself, it was easy to for me to accept that challenge,” said Riverside Mayor Rusty Bailey.
He had also seen his two family friends’ anguished descent into homelessness. And he said when he was in the ninth grade, his church would feed the homeless on Sunday nights.
“I walked in one night, I’m passing out food, taking a tray and there’s a classmate of mine, you could see….,” said Bailey as he choked up recalling the encounter. “Sorry I get so emotional about this. It’s personal.”
Bailey said he wanted the city’s outreach workers to get personal with homeless vets, by knowing their names and repeated visits, sometimes as many as 50. Then came offers of a place to live. It is an approach called Housing First. The idea is to get vets off the street or out of shelters and into permanent housing before addressing substance abuse or mental health issues.
“We have the success stories to prove that Housing First is the right policy for ending homelessness,” Bailey said.
Through the project, veterans had access to VA housing vouchers. But Bailey still had to convince apartment owners to rent to people coming off the streets.
“I pounded on the table and said it’s inexcusable to have veterans in our city who don’t have homes,” Bailey said. “Landlords, where are you at? And many of them stepped up.”
Once they got a place to live, vets were paired up with social services, from mental health to substance abuse to job training.
By the end of 2016, Riverside had housed all 89 of its vets. The city’s share of the feat was $348,000.
Bruick was one of the Riverside program’s early beneficiaries. He went to rehab for the eighth time. Today, he lives in a one-bedroom apartment in Riverside with his fiancee.
And he works at a facility that houses vets until they’re placed in permanent homes.
“I love it,” Bruick said. “I can explain to them what my situation was. I say I was like you. I had nothing. Now I have a car and a place to live. A lot of the vets have had a hard time on the streets and they don’t trust anyone and we have to get them to trust us.”
Mayor Bailey is now applying what the city learned through housing veterans to Riverside’s 400 chronically homeless people. The Riverside City Council backed a plan in March that would place them in housing before offering them social services.
“I see what we’ve done and I’m proud of that,” Bailey said. “But I also see what we need to do and that worries me because it’s easy to support veterans. It’s hard to support ex-cons or the mentally ill individuals or substance abusers shooting up in the parking lot.”
Another challenge is the chronically homeless also do not have access to the the same well-financed federal housing vouchers and social services as veterans.
But Gordon Walker, who heads San Diego’s Regional Task Force on the Homeless, is still optimistic.
“Once you have the political will, the money tends to appear,” Walker said.
He is not involved in the Riverside program but he believes it could show the way forward for other California cities like Los Angeles, San Diego and San Francisco.
“Those cities are some of the richest in the country,” Walker said. “It’s how the money is committed and how the citizens want their cities to be.”
Or as Bruick said, it is about cities having faith in all of their citizens.
Bruick has been sober now for 5 years. He has still not seen his daughters. But he is hoping for a visit with them and his five grandchildren this summer.
The California Dream series is a statewide media collaboration of CALmatters, KPBS, KPCC, KQED and Capital Public Radio with support from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the James Irvine Foundation.