Hope for homeless vets

Tyrone Ladson, 42, reads his Narcotics Anonymous book daily as he works on his sobriety at the Veterans Villas in North Charleston. He said his addiction began after he left the Army Reserve, where he was called up in support of the first Gulf War.

The drug and alcohol addictions that led Navy veteran Darrick Shaw to become homeless started with heavy doses of peer pressure from his shipmates.

He’d enlisted as a teenager and soon found himself away from home, family and friends for long periods of time, making the party life easy.

After getting out in the early 1980s, he spun out of control, sometimes not knowing where he was staying.

“Being around miserable people, doing things I thought was right, that wasn’t,” he said.

Sober for six years, Shaw, 52, attends Department of Veterans Affairs counseling and lives in his own apartment. He considers himself one of the lucky ones.

Today, the two-day annual Stand Down Against Homelessness kicks off in North Charleston. Sponsored by Charleston’s Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center, the event is a free clinic where dental care, medical attention, haircuts and foot care will be offered, along with meals, clothing and sleeping bags.

It also is an unofficial snapshot of homeless vets in the Charleston region.

“Last year, we took care of over 2,000 people during Stand Down,” said Dr. Hugh Myrick, chief of mental health at the VA.

Even more are expected this year, he added, partially because of the continued poor economy.

South Carolina’s homeless veteran population is heavily concentrated in the Charleston area. During a one-night count of shelters statewide last year, at least 612 vets were found to be staying at the sites officials visited. Nearly 150 of them were in Charleston County, with none in Berkeley or Dorchester.

Those numbers are expected to grow even larger in the coming weeks as the seasonal change grips the North.

“It’s easier to be homeless when you’re not going to freeze to death in the winter,” said Randy Brown, director of communications for the Washington, D.C.-based National Coalition for Homeless Veterans.

Meanwhile, the federal government’s picture of homeless veterans indicates at least 67,000 ex-military members went without a roof on a nightly basis last year, with substance-abuse problems the major issue for about 70 percent; about 45 percent suffer from mental illness.

Other statistics show that about half of the country’s homeless veterans are from the Vietnam era. Most are male and more than 55 percent are either black or Hispanic. About 5 percent are female.

Charlestonian Henry Keith, 56, enlisted in the Army during the mid-1970s and fell into the category of substance-abuse addiction. He said he had no problem excelling at the rigors that go with being in an airborne unit, even when he began increasingly dabbling in marijuana and alcohol.

“Peer pressure was there,” he said of what hooked him.

Eventually, Keith and the military parted ways. His life would take a downward turn that included trouble with the law.

“I stayed in the street and got lost in the street,” he said.

Things got so bad one time that he spent all his money, hundreds of dollars, in a matter of days.

“I went from ‘Big Willy’ to ‘Big Silly,’ ” he said, using street slang to describe his sudden crash.

“Humiliation woke me up,” Keith added, describing his decision to get treatment and counseling at the VA.

Today’s Stand Down event is designed to help veterans like Keith become aware of what services the local VA offers. Part of the trouble in treating vets who are in need is getting them to come forward, said Tonya Lobbestael, VA hospital spokeswoman.

Also helping out at the event are Goodwill Industries, Naval Health Clinic Charleston, Naval Weapons Station Charleston, Charleston Air Force Base and other area veterans service organizations. The S.C. Department of Employment and Workforce will help with job assistance.

One formerly homeless vet hunting for work is Tyrone Ladson, 42, who said his addiction began after he left the Army Reserve. He’d been called up in support of the first Gulf War, which interrupted his life plan and caused him to pull out of college. “I had dreams,” he said.

Ladson turned to drugs, admitting he had “too much pride” to seek treatment. Today, he lives in Veterans Villas, transitional housing on the former Charleston Naval Base and Shipyard where military families once lived.

Another veteran who took the step to seek help in Charleston is Chris Hynes, 52, who served in the Army between 1978 and 1982. He’s been sober for 80 days and keeps a motto “Failure is not an option” facing his bunk in the veteran dorms inside Crisis Ministries in downtown Charleston.

In about a week, he’ll graduate from the eight-week rehabilitative program at the VA. Already possessing a degree in psychology from the University of Maryland, Hynes wants to return to the field and get his certification in substance abuse.

He also hopes the veterans serving in the current war zones, years from now, have even more opportunities for growth and stability.

“What most people don’t understand is that homelessness and all of the baggage that goes with those things is not an option, it’s a circumstance,” he said.