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Martha Alston makes sandwiches for patients staying at her shelter, Carolina Homeless Veterans, Thursday Nov. 7, 2019, on James Island. Alston has been operating the shelter for more than 30 years, providing services to veterans and non-veterans. Gavin McIntyre/Staff

Residents at a James Island facility for veterans without homes know they're in for a life-altering conversation when Martha Alston grabs her green chair. 

If they're having a hard time or giving the staff trouble, Alston sits down with them knee-to-knee. She refers to them gently as "son" and talks with them about the direction of their life. 

“We would say when you get the green chair, you would come out a different person," said Karen Cook, Alston's daughter. 

For more than 30 years Alston has had these intimate conversations with dozens of veterans and homeless men as the director of a home and rehabilitation facility called Carolina Homeless Veterans. Today, while the program continues to operate, it is in dire need of funding to keep going.

With more money, Alston said she wouldn't have to stress about the program's future and could focus on doing the work she enjoys.

"It was just something that I was chosen for," Alston said. 

The U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs reports more than 37,000 veterans were experiencing homelessness on a single night last year in January. Even with so many veterans sleeping on the streets or in shelters, the problem is showing signs of improvement. Since 2010, the number of homeless veterans has decreased by 50 percent. 

In South Carolina, the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness reports the number of homeless veterans decreased from 612 veterans in 2011 to a little over 400 last year. While directors like Alston are excited about the statewide decrease, they still see the importance for programs. 

“There will always be a need, even though the numbers are decreasing," said Selena Wilson, the chief programs officer for One80 Place, a South Carolina shelter that offers veteran housing services. 

Not getting to everyone 

In South Carolina, more than 70 percent of veterans who are homeless are living in shelters, said Marco Corona, the chief development officer for One80 Place. And 25 percent of the homeless population in the Lowcountry is veterans. This is larger than any of the other regions in the state. 

"The needs are so great," Alston said. 

One of the reasons why areas like Charleston see so many veterans, Corona said, is because of the resources available through the Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center. 

Dr. Hugh Myrick, the associate chief of staff for mental health at the VAMC, said that the VA offers resources that range from psychiatric support to housing vouchers and shelter options for veterans who are homeless. 

Because there are resources and shelters in the Charleston area that can provide support, it doesn't surprise him that veterans migrate to the area. 

"It really makes Charleston different," he said. 

Another reason for the larger community of veterans who are homeless is the lack of affordable housing in the area, Wilson said. Non-veteran residents have difficulty acquiring housing, and veterans aren't excluded from this regional problem.   

“We’re not getting to everyone," Corona said.

Wilson and Corona don't necessarily see long-term shelters as the solution. They believe programs that help veterans get back on their feet as soon possible are typically more effective — programs like Alston's Carolina Homeless Veterans. 

“My whole thing in this business is to make people feel whole," Alston said.

"Ain't nothing for no personal gain"  

Alston's journey to Carolina Homeless Veterans coincides with Charleston's history. Years ago, she was one of the first black cashiers in the city when she was hired to work at the old Piggly Wiggly on Meeting Street.

She was also a part of the hospital workers' strike at the Medical University of South Carolina, where she trained. At the time, Alston was a nurse.

“My mother is a pitbull," Alston's daughter Cook said. "She's tough."

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Flags commemorating the military stand above the fireplace inside the Carolina Homeless Veterans shelter on Thursday Nov. 7, 2019, on James Island. Martha Alston has been operating the shelter for more than 30 years, providing services to veterans and non-veterans. Gavin McIntyre/Staff

Alston never planned on running a facility like the one she runs now. In fact, the VA reached out to her back in the '80s when they were looking to create and fund Health Care for Homeless Veterans (HCHV) programs.

Originally called McLeod Manor Residential Care, Carolina Homeless Veterans became one of the first HCHV programs in the nation in 1986. And Alston was hand-picked to run it.

At the time, she had decades of firsthand experience as a nurse and an advanced degree in organizational management.

"Evidently, I was being observed by people," she said.

Neighboring a post office on Folly Road, the Carolina Homeless Veterans facility sits on McLeod Avenue and looks like the other homes surrounding it. There's no sign on the door or in the yard, nothing indicating it's a shelter.

That's on purpose. Alston said she wants people to feel like they are at home.

"Anyone that knows this building," she said, "they know exactly what we've done."

Her daughter became the program administrator for the shelter. Cook said she started off doing a little bit of paperwork.

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“Before I knew it, I was in that building seven days a week," she said.

At the facility, they have 24/7 supervision, drug and alcohol monitoring, relapse prevention advice, crisis intervention and monitoring of chronic mental illness. Since its inception, the program has never had a death or had a patient harm themselves. It is open to civilians as well as veterans.

For Alston, some of the fondest memories are with the patients. She remembers helping a man who came in with bloody feet because he didn't have shoes. She remembers a former rehab patient in 1989 getting reconnected with his family after they had given up on him.

When he came back to see Alston years later after completing the program, he showed her a picture of his fully grown kids.

Alston has had to use some of her personal funds to keep the program going, and she said it's been a long, hard two years. Carolina Homeless Veterans gets a few donations here and there but not enough to sustain the home long-term.

If Alston got more funding, she said they could perform miracles. They could fully buy the home, open an extra shelter and do renovations she has being dying to do for a long time.

Now in her 70s, Alston wants to train and pay someone to run the facility when she no longer can. Until then, she plans to go on as long as she is able.

“I’d like to see this go on forever,” she said. "But God always has my back, ain't nothing for no personal gain."

Making people whole again

In a 2016 YouTube video of the facility, the shelter looks like a packed house. Alston had a fuller staff and a higher number of patients.

Now, it's a little bit quieter and her staff is smaller. She often makes lunch for the few residents herself. She knows there are probably veterans who could benefit from the program, but they either don't know about her or can't get to her.

But she still does the important work, which for her means making the men that do come through the program feel whole again.

Alston said that is the key to reaching people. Treating them like a person and being gentle and stern when needed with them. That's also why she's so willing to have those intimate and infamous green chair conversations.

"Before I sit in that chair, I make sure every man is in a comfort zone," Alston said. "And when (I) do, they open up."

Reach Jerrel Floyd at 843-937-5558. Follow him on Twitter @jfloyd134.