By PAUL CLARK
Posted: Nov. 15, 2008
ASHEVILLE, N.C. — Travis Robinson was headed for the streets when he heard about the Veterans Restoration Quarters. It may have saved his life, he believes. For months, he'd been having nightmares about his time in Iraq. Enemy fire and bombings were constant for the 37th Engineer Battalion as it set up support in hostile territory for soldiers coming from the rear.
At home at his parents' house in Rutherford County, he'd wake up with a shotgun beside him. He was drinking, heavily. Because of it, his parents gave him a timetable for getting out of the house. He sought treatment at the Charles George VA Medical Center in Asheville, where he learned about the Veterans' Restoration Quarters, an old Super 8 motel on Tunnel Road that Asheville-Buncombe Community Christian Ministry had made into housing for homeless vets.
In June, unable to find a job at home, days from having to leave his parents' home, he applied. The Asheville Citizen-Times reported that homeless veterans are a local problem, not just a national one. During one 24-hour period in January, volunteers at shelters and elsewhere counted 121 homeless vets in Buncombe County, according to housing program workers at the VA medical center.
Nationwide, current population estimates suggest that about 154,000 veterans (male and female) are homeless on any given night, and perhaps twice as many experience homelessness at some point during the course of a year, according to the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs. Right now, the number of homeless male and female Vietnam-era veterans is greater than the number of service persons who died in the war.
A year ago, Asheville-Buncombe Community Christian Ministry was awarded a $1.6 million grant from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to provide 100 new beds for homeless vets in Buncombe County. Already running a 70-bed shelter for vets on Coxe Avenue in downtown Asheville, it used the money, as well as $1 million Federal Home Loan Bank grant, to leverage a $3.6 million bank loan for the Super 8 motel and its 10 acres. The quarters, which opened in May, allows veterans with honorable or general discharges to stay for up to two years. Room and board are free; residents are offered classes to help them find work and live on their own.
The center is currently full - 200 men, from every war and conflict since Vietnam, ranging in age from 25 to 65, director Michael Reich said. Each week, two to four of them move out, and others move in. Last week, 55 men were listed as waiting to get in. At least once a week, Hillary Logan Bolter, a clinical social worker at the VA medical center in Asheville, visits homeless shelters looking for veterans who might benefit from the program she coordinates. She distributes Housing and Urban Development vouchers for rent assistance, only for veterans.
Bolter has screened about 30 people since beginning in July (and given out eight vouchers). Many have been in pretty low places, she said. Divorce, becoming disabled, estrangement from family - the same things that can lay anybody low can have a crippling effect on someone whose life has been heavily regimented for years. Especially if they've seen action.
Robinson, 27, was in a vehicle in Iraq in 2002 when it hit an improvised explosive device, wounding him in the hip. Thunderstorms back at his parents' house would bring the explosion back to life. When lightning hit, he'd ride the storms out in the hall. Willie Baskerville, 56, knows the feeling. A platoon sergeant in Vietnam, charged with freeing prisoners being held by the Vietcong, he launched a missile into a village one day and discovered the people he killed were actually women and children.
"I had a hard time getting over that," Baskerville said. He started drinking and using drugs, but still, "when I woke up in the morning, the first thing I'd see was that round going down range" into the village, he said. His behavior made him homeless, for a long time. In Asheville, he slept on church steps, in shelters when it was cold and in woods behind Mission Hospitals when it wasn't. "There was no life," he said of his own.
Baskerville credits the Veterans Restoration Quarters with helping him stay sober. The center has a "three-strikes" policy, and Baskerville said he doesn't have any against him. He's got a stereo, some clothes and work doing odd jobs for people. Like Baskerville, Robinson shares his small room with a roommate. Two double beds take up most of the floor space, as they do in most budget motels. The bathroom is in the back. Robinson's room has a small fridge, a microwave and a desk where Robinson studies toward a degree in nursing. Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College is a short scooter ride from his room. He's in class all day. There's no telling what would have happened if he hadn't gotten into the Veterans Restoration Quarters, he said. "I worry about being on the streets because after being in a war zone, the street is pretty similar," he said. "In Iraq, if someone's being hostile, you shoot them. You've got permission to, I guess. You don't have permission here."