Without a Home: Veterans serve others who served and now face homelessness

Jun 15, 2023, 4:35 AM

This is the fourth of a five-part series titled “Without a Home,” a KTAR News special report on homelessness in metro Phoenix. Read Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3. Tune to 92.3 FM all week for more in-depth coverage of the issue.

PHOENIX — Chuck Ashby is the veterans outreach coordinator at Catholic Charities MANA House, an organization that provides support and transitional housing for those who served.

Ashby said it can be hard for some veterans to trust people who haven’t served in the military, even when they need help.

“It’s a sense of isolation from the rest of the country,” he said.

That’s why Ashby’s own military service is vital to the work he does now with Phoenix’s MANA House — the name stands for Marines, Army, Navy, Air Force — and it’s the same reason why he always wears an Air Force hat.

“When he sees me, we speak a particular language, and it was all through the psychic change that occurred when we all went through basic training,” Ashby said.

But that’s not the only “language” Ashby has in common with some of the people he tries to help.

“I also speak recovery from homelessness, and I speak recovery from drugs, and all of those things hook up and you have a spiritual understanding that occurs,” he said.

Now, he’s using those connections to help others have the same success.

“Part of the whole thing is sharing what my whole experience has been and guiding them through some real tough times,” he said.

How widespread is veteran homelessness?

The number of veterans experiencing homelessness has been trending lower nationally, but the problem has been more persistent in the Phoenix area.

The Department of Veterans Affairs estimates the veteran homeless population has declined by about 55% since 2010, including an 11% drop from 2020 to 2022, the most recent year for which national data is available.

Locally, however, veteran homelessness increased by 20% over the last year, according to the Maricopa County point-in-time census conducted in January 2023.

What causes veteran homelessness?

George Campbell, the Arizona Housing Coalition’s veteran initiatives manager, also has dedicated himself to helping fellow former military members experiencing homelessness. He helps run “StandDown” events across Arizona, where dozens of organizations join to connect veterans with resources such as housing support, legal assistance and treatment programs.

Campbell said the transition from a military life to a civilian one can be challenging, especially for those struggling with mental health issues.

“Some of those vets come home with a lot of things going on,” he said. “It’s a difficult situation. War is tough, so they come through with PTSD and, you know, bad habits that lead to bad circumstances.”

That’s not always the case, though. At the recent Maricopa County StandDown, Tom Gratto said he became homeless about a year ago after being priced out of his rent.

“It’s rough, just finding a place to shower,” Gratto said. “If you can find a place to shower three times a week, you’re doing real good.”

Gratto’s situation is becoming more common in the Valley, especially for people on a fixed income. Experts say the lack of affordable housing is the root cause of the Valley’s homelessness problem.

“It’s a shock. You’re in for an eye opener,” Gratto said. “All those things you take [for] granted … ain’t there. They are not there.”

‘Agencies are putting money into it’

While the situation seems dire, Ashby, the MANA House coordinator, thinks there is a light at the end of the tunnel as awareness increases.

“With everything else that’s going on, homelessness has become one of our biggest problems in this country, and very slowly, the city and the county and other governmental agencies are putting money into it, but they’re putting money into organizations that work directly with it,” he said.

Ashby has been sober for 18 years after services helped him turn his life around.

“I had to look at myself and reinvent my life, and I basically did that,” he said. “And so I’m 79 years old, but I’m really 18, and I really feel like I have the enthusiasm of somebody whose life is just beginning.”

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Without a Home: Veterans serve others who served and now face homelessness