November 8, 2007 – Derick Hughes joined the Marine Corps right after he graduated from high school. “I didn’t want to end up on the streets, so I joined the military,” he said.
But three years later and after one tour in Iraq, on the street is exactly where Hughes found himself. “Me and my wife were living in my car for awhile,” said Hughes.
Tall and fit with a friendly smile and warm eyes, Hughes doesn’t look like the stereotypical homeless person. But he found it tough to find a job after being discharged. “When soldiers and troops come back from overseas they get this big parade,” said Hughes. “Then what? Then everybody goes home.”
Looking back, he said he should have learned a trade while he was in the Marine Corps. “I wanted to be in the infantry, so that left me few choices when I got out,” said Hughes.
He doesn’t like to talk about what he saw while he was at war, but he admits he has been diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. “I have PTSD, extremely, I have seizures,” he said.
Hughes’ behavior became more erratic and like so many other veterans, he began using drugs and alcohol. “Then a few people pointed some things out to me,” he said. That’s when he found the Sacramento Veterans Resource Center or SVRC.
The Department of Veterans Affairs teams up with SVRC to provide a multitude of services to homeless vets.
Reed Walker-Haight is a homeless coordinator for the V.A. She works closely with SVRC. One of her biggest challenges is outreach. “Some homeless veterans choose not to come to the V.A. because the V.A. is way too closely associated with the military in their mind,” she said.
Others, like Hughes simply don’t know resources exist. “I didn’t even know about the V.A. for about seven to eight months,” he said. “I didn’t know what the V.A. was. It was like here’s your discharge papers, you’re out, you’re done, thank you.”
Hughes spent 58 days at SVRC. Along with a safe place to sleep and eat, the center provided him with treatment, counseling and job training. “I’m getting help now,” he said.
While Walker-Haight is disturbed by a new study that showed more than 25 percent of the homeless population in the United States are military veterans, she sees a silver lining. “Twenty years ago the number was more like 30-35 percent, so it’s getting better,” she said.
But both Walker-Haight and Hughes are worried that resources will soon be flooded with a tsunami of veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan who are in desperate need of help.
“What we learned from Vietnam is that veterans didn’t come back and immediately become homeless drug addicts,” said Walker-Haight. “They came back and dealt with symptoms of PTSD and mental health problems and their lives deteriorated over time.”
Hughes is hoping his fellow Iraq war vets will find the kind of support he did through the Sacramento Veterans Resource Center. “They’ve helped me,” he said. “I now have a job I have my own place you know everything’s going fine, I’m getting back on my feet slowly but surely.”