Returning from War, Veterans Battle Poverty and Hunger at Home
Food insecure veterans rely on D.C. nonprofits for meals.
Winthrop Robbins, a 70-year-old Vietnam veteran, knows he can count on eating breakfast and dinner most days with other veterans in their provided housing, but lunch can be a challenge.
The gray-haired Holyoke, Mass., native pays a $3 fee for two meals provided by Access Housing, Inc., a local nonprofit that offers homeless veterans in the D.C. area subsidized housing and services.
The organization’s two apartment-style buildings in Anacostia, one red brick and the other gray, can house up to 98 veterans, each with their own room and key, according to communications director Dwayne Jones. However, Access Housing Inc. is unable to provide those residents with lunch due to costs, meaning many veterans must either wait for the next meal or purchase groceries from the local Wal-Mart with food stamps.
“Sometimes I eat hot dogs — I’ve got a whole thing of sausages in the freezer,” Robbins said. “I’m not too heavy on the lunch.”
Nearly 900,000 veterans nationwide lived in households that rely on the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP), the government-funded program that provides food assistance to low-income families and individuals, according to the most recent report from D.C. think tank Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
“They’re [food stamps] the lifeblood for a lot of guys here,” said Ernest Parker, a Navy veteran and current resident of the Southeast Veterans Service Center, which is operated by Access Housing, Inc. The 60-year-old North Carolina native served as a data processing technician in the Navy for five years, traveling all over the world.
However, many SNAP-dependent veterans may see their program benefits decrease, as Congress and President Barack Obama approved cuts to SNAP that will amount to $8.6 billion over 10 years in the Agriculture Act of 2014 on Feb. 7.
Parker discovered his SNAP benefits were revoked after using them one month, he said. He later found he was no longer eligible because he received an income above the qualified amount.
“Sometimes life deals you lemons, and you can suck the bitter lemons, or ask for some sugar and water and make lemonade,” Parker said.
Robbins’ lunch is mostly covered by SNAP, but the veteran still carefully budgets his monthly $149 Social Security check and $66.54 Maryland state pension to cover all his living costs. His older sister, a retired lawyer living in New York, pays for the remaining items, such as clothes and shoes.
“I’m pretty street smart,” Robbins said. “You can get wiped out if you don’t stay on top of things.”
Meanwhile, Parker uses his earnings as a part-time IT analyst in the area and surprise checks from his aunt to finance his current costs, he said. He plans to move out of Southeast Veterans Services Center, one of Access Housing Inc.’s veterans housing units, in June.
“I just want a job with some longevity and benefits,” he said, shaking his balding head. “I want to have a safe apartment. I just want to be comfortable.”
The two veterans’ centers are located in Ward 8, the location of D.C.’s highest poverty and unemployment rates in 2013. Ward 8 is also the neighborhood with the most people using SNAP benefits, at 44,228 in 2013, according to NeighborhoodInfo DC, a project completed under the partnership of the Urban Institute and the Washington, D.C. Local Initiatives Support.
“This area is not that safe,” Parker said, the laugh lines on his face disappearing as he grew somber. “I’m scared.”
While some veterans like Parker consider the Southeast Veterans Service Center to be temporary housing, Robbins, who has taken residence there for 12 years, calls it home.
“I know what it’s like to be homeless,” he said. “This place has taken care of me immensely.”
Robbins first arrived at the Southeast Veterans Service Center in 2002 after spending four years sleeping in homeless shelters and on the streets of D.C. Working part-time as a pharmacy greeter, Robbins lived paycheck to paycheck, earning $80 every two weeks until the Veterans Affairs office referred him to Access Housing, Inc.
‘People do things on Veterans Day, and that’s great, but that needs to be consistent on all days.’
– Greg Crawford, the executive director of Access Housing, Inc.
The Army veteran previously worked odd jobs in factories, mills and state highways while living in Massachusetts with his grandmother after leaving the military. Robbins then traveled south to Maryland in 1985 after his grandmother’s death, taking up residence with his mother while working for the state of Maryland. However, her death in 1999 drove Robbins to move to D.C.
“I feel secure in D.C., mentally I feel secure,” he said. “I feel protected.”
After serving as a senior medic in Vietnam for two tours in 1968 and 1972, Robbins returned to the U.S. unharmed but with horrible memories. He was soon diagnosed with schizophrenia, Robbins said.
“I was on the front lines. I saw a lot of people get killed and mangled,” he said. “It was pretty horrific.”
Yet Robbins’ story is not unique. Of the current 23 million veterans living in the U.S., 57,849 were found homeless on a single night in January 2013, according to the 2013 Annual Homeless Assessment Report.
“Obviously homelessness and hunger go hand in hand because you can’t be homeless and not be hungry,” said Rich Synek, the founder and president of Feed Our Vets, a nonprofit that works to provide veterans nationwide with food.
Feed Our Vets supplies veterans with a week’s worth of food locally through its food pantry located in Utica, N.Y. and nationwide by mailing out Wal-Mart gift cards, according to Synek. Veterans are required to submit discharge orders and a photo ID in order to receive food, Synek said.
“Our veterans are the working poor,” Synek said. “They just weren’t fortunate enough like me to put themselves through school and get a job at the post office.”
In the past two years, the nonprofit’s food pantry almost doubled the amount of food given away from 48,637 in 2012 to 70,540 pounds in 2013 due to cuts in SNAP and unemployment benefits, Synek said.
“We’re actually the only organization, the only not-for-profit in the entire country that’s doing this,” he said. “[Feed Our Vets] feeds veterans, their spouses and children.”
Veteran homelessness has declined nationwide 24 percent since 2009, a statistic the U.S. Veterans Affairs Office hopes to lower to zero by 2015, according to the Veterans Affairs Office website. The D.C. Office of Veterans Affairs is close to achieving this initiative with only 200 veterans still homeless, according to Director of D.C.’s Office of Veterans Affairs Matthew Cary.
“There’s a huge push to make sure our men and women who served are taken care of and that there’s some safety net,” said Greg Crawford, the executive director of Access Housing, Inc. “Everyone is making an effort.”
However, the D.C. Veterans Affairs Office does offer a specific program and resources to address veteran food insecurity, according to Cary. The U.S. Office of Veterans Affairs primarily works to provide veterans with resources and benefits such as healthcare, educational training and successful transition to civilian life, Cary said.
Crawford said he believes it is the community and the nation’s responsibility to take an active role in helping veterans, such as landlords setting aside housing specifically for veterans.
“People do things on Veterans’ Day, and that’s great, but that needs to be consistent on all days,” he said. “The nation needs to be there.”
“The whole community needs help”
While many veterans in the District battle poverty in their own lives, a platoon of 100 D.C. veterans are working to combat hunger and nutrition through community service.
“Service platoons are teams of veterans who are working together in their hometowns to better their communities by working on the most pressing needs,” said Aaron Scheinberg, an Army veteran and the Northeast director of The Mission Continues, a nonprofit that helps veterans cope with the challenges of veteran life through service.
The D.C. platoon meets monthly to complete a community service project over the course of a few hours, according to platoon leader Vu Nguyen. Past events have included picking apples at Bread for the City’s fruit orchard in Beltsville, Md., and serving the homeless at D.C. Central Kitchen.
Nguyen chose to focus the platoon’s mission on hunger and nutrition after discovering D.C. has the second highest percentage of childhood food insecurity among the 50 states and the capital, according to the nonprofit No Kid Hungry.
“I didn’t want to do … veterans helping veterans because the whole community needs help,” Nguyen said.
Nguyen served in Afghanistan during the last six months of his Navy tenure in 2008, assisting with administrative duties such as helping service members receive requested leave. Upon his return, Nguyen became involved with The Mission Continues and helped found the D.C. platoon last October.
“I wanted to give back to the veteran community … because it was what I was doing in the military anyway,” he said.
The Mission Continues focuses mostly on reintegrating post-9/11 veterans into civilian life through service and interaction with the local community, according to Nguyen.
“Most Americans, when they speak about veterans, they group us as one big unit,” Scheinberg said. “But we’re human beings just like anybody else.”