Photo by Lola M. Chavez

When Amos Howard left the hospital after an overnight stay, a taxi dropped him off at the corner of 18th and Shotwell streets.

Howard remembers heavy rains on that day – his forearms were locked in fresh casts and, already homeless for a year and a half, the 59-year-old U.S. Army veteran had nowhere to go.

“They didn’t give me a voucher to go to a hotel or anything, so I said, ‘I guess this is the safest place,’” said Howard, who had ended up in the hospital after someone stole the money he had made recycling cans, beat him up and left him with two broken wrists.

That was a year ago. Howard is still on the streets and the story of the last year is filled with failed attempts to reach out to him, some miraculous chance encounters, and a refuge of sorts.

Howard, his face gaunt, his voice clear, said the lack of support he received from the city after his release from the hospital made him feel “kicked to the curb.”

“No one had time to see me – everybody was busy or wasn’t in,” said Howard, who often covers his mouth as he talks – a habit that became ingrained when he lost some teeth. “I got totally disappointed.”

His luck, however, was in setting up where the taxi had dropped him off – near St. Charles Borromeo Parish at 713 South Van Ness Ave. On that first night, he said, “I laid in a box house I built out of cardboard.”

The next morning, he met Father John Jimenez, the pastor of St. Charles. Father John beckoned to Howard, then set up across the street at the school, to move his camp to the sidewalk alongside the parish’s walls.

He gave him a tent and told Howard he would be more comfortable there. Since then, Howard has been living in in the shadows of the parish. He he feels safe there.

“We allow him to camp here because it’s kind of a situation where the city can’t offer him anything better,” said Jimenez. “He doesn’t get bothered by anybody here.”

Howard says that Jimenez provides him with clothing, food, and candles when he needs them. Howard uses the church’s restroom to clean up, but says he limits his time inside the church. “It would be a conflict for the church members,” he said.

As it turns out, Howard is also a man of the ministry. Howard found God during his service and became a chaplain’s assistant. That however, failed to protect him from his own demons.

He is one of some 215 chronically homeless veterans. Although President Obama pledged to end veteran homelessness by 2015 and increased resources and housing vouchers, some, like Howard, remain on the streets. A 2016 study published by the Department of Veteran Affairs placed the veteran suicide rate at 20 per day in 2014.

Photo by Lola M. Chavez

“The veteran [homeless] community has more access now to resources than non-veteran [homeless] community,” said Kevin Miller, a spokesperson for Swords to Plowshares, a low-barrier city agency that offers wrap-around services dedicated to housing veterans.

Still, while one in three homeless veterans in San Francisco is eligible for the federal vouchers, finding landlords willing to accept them is difficult, Miller says.

“We have to find landlords doing it out of the goodness of their hearts, because rent in San Francisco is through the roof,” said Miller. “The vouchers are significantly lower than what they could be getting on the open market.”

Failure to Connect

Others, like Howard, who have suffered trauma in combat or on the streets, are prone to substance abuse and mental illness, and resist services for varying reasons.

Amos Gregory, a Mission resident, U.S. Navy veteran, and activist working to end veteran homelessness in San Francisco, explained that having served in the military is a “very unique experience shared by a few.”

Many veterans, particularly those who have experienced homelessness for extended periods of time, he said, tend to isolate because of trauma or shame. “To have people out there that actually understand how to find them, connect with them, take the time to gain their trust, and also have the connection to their proper resources is crucial,” said Gregory. In San Francisco, he claims, “that system is broken.”

Jake Martin, director of the San Francisco VA Comprehensive Homeless Center, agrees that outreach must be consistent, especially among chronically homeless veterans.

“It can take me a year to engage with someone to make them feel like they are okay and safe with me and we can eventually move them into an apartment,” said Martin. “You can’t stop engaging with people.”

For the past year, Gregory said he has stepped in to do the work that he says city agencies have failed to do – getting Howard setup for transitioning off the streets and into housing.

“He needs a case manager – I’m practically doing that but it’s not my job,” said Gregory, who last week took Howard to sort out his food stamps and helped him to get “his phone up and running.”

“You can only get failed so many times by the system before folks give up,” he said. “All these things could be resolved if he had quality case management, someone who cares about him.”

Howard said he hasn’t seen his case manager in over seven months.

“Nobody comes here, that’s what I don’t understand. I’m right around the corner from the Shotwell [encampment],” he said, referring to a sprawling homeless encampment that occupied a stretch of Shotwell Street between 18th and 19th streets, and was recently dismantled by the city. The encampment’s residents were moved to shelters – but Howard’s tent, just around the corner, remained.

Kicked to the Curb

To draw attention to Howard’s case and to push the issue of veteran homelessness onto the agenda of city leaders, Gregory even camped outside of City Hall.

Still, the public shaming failed to result in housing for Howard. Gregory said that after he posted a picture of Howard’s tent online, outreach workers from Swords to Plowshares made contact with Howard. But when he missed two appointments with the organization in August and in October – because he was unable to leave his tent behind for fear of being robbed, he said– the engagement stopped.

“Amos is immobile. He can’t leave his belongings for more than 30 minutes or [they are] gone. That’s everything he has,” said Gregory. “So they left a couple of cards there, and just checked him off the list.”

Miller, from Plowshares, said that Howard’s case was documented in their system. Both times the organization attempted an intake with Howard, he was a no-show, said Miller.

He explained that the organization has a robust outreach program that partners with other city agencies, such as the Homeless Outreach Team and BART to comb neighborhoods for veterans. Once identified, veterans are offered emergency shelter and are later connected to housing, either within the agency’s supportive housing units or through landlords signed up with a federal voucher program known as HUD-VASH.

Photo by Lola M. Chavez

“We have a fairly low turnover rate under supportive housing,” said Miller referring to the few vacancies.

Following Mission Local inquiries, Howard was transported to the organization on Tuesday for another intake. There, he was told that he is on the priority list for housing with the vouchers issued by Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing Program, and is now awaiting approval of his application to meet with a housing specialist.

He was offered emergency shelter and a spot at the city’s Navigation Center, and has previously turned down offers for temporary housing, said Miller.

Howard acknowledges that he has his own expectations of what his housing should look like.

“I want a one-bedroom apartment,” said Howard and, referring to the single room occupancy hotel where he once lived, adds, “I never want to go back to an SRO.”

Before becoming homeless, Howard was living in the Mission Hotel, but an eviction put him out on the streets and he was glad for it.

“I did not go to court, I did not fight it, I did not want to fight it,” he said, adding that his experience living in the hotel had “burned” him. “In the SROS we have mixed people and their emotions, most of them are unstable. I really wanted to get out of there.”

On the streets, Howard also does not do well living with others. He said he’s been ostracized from the Shotwell Street encampment.

“I find that being with others, it’s a problem,” he said, adding encampments have “too many people around [that] do nothing but wander from one tent to another. I don’t like all that socializing.”

Depending on Howard’s assessment, he could be placed in supportive housing or he will have to find a landlord willing to accept his voucher.

Howard is hopeful, but acknowledges that he has grown bitter about being stuck in limbo, and disillusioned by those tasked to help him.

“As a vet here the city has done zero for me. It’s pathetic that I had to be out here on the streets as a vet for a year with two casts,” he said. “They knew I was here the whole time. Nobody came by…nobody but the priest.”

See the video of Amos Howard talking about his experience here.

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