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Hope for homeless vets

Veterans find help at Tacoma Avenue Shelter

A former Soldier, Anthony advises veterans to use their VA benefits. /J.M. Simpson

Tacoma Avenue Shelter

Photo by J.M. Simpson

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    Tacoma Avenue Shelter

    A former Marine and Vietnam era vet, Bill says he is still “true blue” to America and the Marine Corps.

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Journalist's Note:  As a measure of privacy and respect, only the first names of the veterans interviewed for this story were used.

There is a distant look in Bill's eyes - framed by the deep lines on his face - of a man who has seen his share of hard times.

He is homeless - and he is not alone.

According to the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans, there are approximately 107,000 homeless veterans on any given night in America.

Closer to home, the Washington State Department of Veterans Affairs (WDVA) reports there are more than 8,700 homeless veterans.

For the past five years Bill, a highly decorated former Marine and Vietnam veteran, has struggled with finding and keeping a home. He said he had been one of the last Marines to leave Saigon at the end of the war and had been awarded two Bronze Stars and a Silver Star. "I was personally decorated by President Reagan for my actions," he said as he stood in the courtyard of the Tacoma Avenue Shelter.

Leaving the Corps in 1983, he initially found work as a machinist with Kenworth Trucking and then later with the Boeing Company. By 1995, Bill said he had lost his job due to an economic downturn.

From that time until about 2005, he found employment at various trucking companies.  While he welcomed the work and the income it presented, it was not permanent. The lack of a steady income eventually led to his becoming homeless.

"On and off over the past five years I've been coming here," explained Bill as he prepared to enter the shelter for the night. "And remember this - be loyal to the veterans who come here.  Somewhere down the road one of them will help you," he added.

Facilitating that help - that sense of loyalty that is one of the hallmarks of servicemembers - is the Tacoma Avenue Shelter. Located at 1142 Court E on Tacoma Avenue South, it is the largest emergency homeless shelter in Pierce County.  

A part of Catholic Community Services, the shelter serves up to 105 men and 40 women seven nights a week, 365 nights a year.

"We have created here a safe environment where our guests are treated with respect and dignity," said Jim Anderson, the program director. "By providing a sense of safety and stability, it allows some of our guests to dream and hope again."

A soft spoken man with a will of steel when it comes to helping the homeless, Anderson has worked with numerous agencies and businesses to provide everything from food to the opportunity of owning a home. "It is all about community, about facilitating community," he said as we sat in a small office at the shelter.

One example of the shelter's trained staff's commitment is the work Chuck Taylor, a program supervisor, and his staff have done in helping veterans learn if they have any benefits due them from the Veterans Administration. "Our staff has been out to American Lake to tie into their housing services," said Taylor. "We work very hard to fast track veterans into the VA's services."

Anderson and Taylor also talked about a novel program between the shelter and the WDVA that helps homeless veterans who have been released from jail. "The WDVA pays for three beds here," explained Anderson. "If the vet meets the VA standards and works with our social workers, we help them get their VA benefits."

The point here is that homeless veterans get into the mental health and chemical dependency programs they need in order to return regain a sense of balance in society. "The VA has a good set of programs to deal with homelessness," emphasized Anderson, "and we want all veterans to be able to access them."

That accessing to help began as each homeless person checked in with Bob Hem, a staff member at the shelter who has a quarter of a century of experience in helping the less fortunate. "On a typical night, 25 percent of our guests are veterans," he said.  "We all work hard to turn their situations around."

After check in, all guests at the shelter take a shower and find a bed.  While the large sleeping area is spartan in appearance, it is clean, and everyone has a clean mattress, blankets, sheets and pillows.

Guests new to the shelter receive a welcoming interview within a week.

"They do a nice job in helping provide us a safe and clean place to sleep," said Harold, a former Soldier. "They also do a good job in helping us find the benefits due us."

Until 2010, Harold had employment as a truck driver with a moving company.  As current economic conditions continued to deteriorate, he lost his job.

Not long after, he lost his house.

Coming to the Tacoma Avenue Shelter for help, Harold said the staff has worked him with in getting his VA paperwork straightened out and in helping him look for work. "I have made some decisions that put me here," he said directly.  "I have no one else to blame but myself, but these people here have treated me with respect, and I deeply appreciate that."

Anderson understands perfectly. "We present and maintain a sense of hope."  

For more information about the Tacoma Avenue Shelter, visit or call (253) 572-0130.

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