After Jason Snyder finished a tour in Afghanistan, where he says he cleaned up the remains of soldiers blown up by IEDs, he was eager to start over. But since returning, Snyder has struggled to find a home, and now sleeps with his wife and baby on the floor of a mechanic shop in Ontario, Calif.
“I put in 10 years. But I didn’t really feel that my service was appreciated,” Snyder told The Huffington Post. “I thought that we kind of got kicked to the curb.”
Snyder, 31, is one of an estimated 67,000 homeless veterans, a troubling statistic that the Department of Veterans Affairs has committed to reducing to zero by 2015. While some experts say it will take billions of federal dollars to accomplish, one organization -- which took time on Veterans Day Sunday to bring attention to the issue -- says enabling vets to help one another may help put an end to the epidemic.
The Vet Hunters Project, a two-year-old, grassroots nonprofit, dispenses teams of former servicemen and servicewomen across the country to find homeless vets. Volunteers help them get shelter and navigate their health benefits. This personalized system works because struggling veterans are often unwilling to seek out government programs on their own, whether it be because of mental health issues, or a reluctance to deal with a bureaucratic VA.
“There needs to be a lot more effort to meet the veteran where they live," said Joe Leal, an Iraq War veteran and founder of Vet Hunters. “They’re not going to walk into a VA office. A lot of those guys are going to tell you, ‘I’ve been through that. It didn’t work out.’ A lot of times, they are so frustrated with the spider-web system, the red tape.”
On average, it takes the VA 260 days to answer a disability claim, according to the Daily Beast. That’s two months longer than a year ago. Snyder, who’s now working with Vet Hunters, said he submitted a claim in June, just before he was discharged. He learned on Saturday that the claim had been lost.
But Vet Hunters, which has helped nearly 1,500 vets find shelter, according to co-founder Steve Kreider, isn’t interested in creating a bigger, better agency. The nonprofit is actually working with the VA to help it become more efficient.
“As we learn what works for us, the VA is asking us, ‘How can we do things better?'” said Kreider, also an Iraq War veteran. “They’re willing to adapt.”
The nonprofit has raised just $34,900, a figure that underscores how many lives can be saved without necessarily spending big bucks.
Just having former military members initiate the conversation, for example, plays a crucial role in the rehabilitative process.
After panhandling for 12 years, Vernon Gordon -- a Vietnam veteran who’s hesitant to talk about his service -- had about given up.
But when a friend introduced Gordon, 62, to a Vet Hunters volunteer in August, something felt different. Gordon didn’t say much, but the volunteer understood. He understood the drug addiction and the alienation that comes after serving.
“A veteran understands what we’ve been going through,” Gordon said. “A veteran will put more effort into it.”
For the first time, Gordon was pointed to a shelter that suited him. He moved into the Whittier First Day –- a facility with a clinic that helped him get his health “back on track.”
He now shares a room in an apartment building with a friend.
But keeping veterans together is something the nonprofit hopes to make an even more integral part of getting vets on their feet.
The organization has found that because homeless veterans often face a host of unique challenges –- PTSD, physical disabilities and haunting pasts–- they may choose the streets over a shelter. Living without a roof over their heads may prove more comfortable than living with civilians who can’t understand their struggles.
While Vet Hunters has opened a number of shelters exclusively for former servicemen and servicewomen, it’s hoping that larger nonprofits and the VA follow their lead.
“If you’re going to spend a lot of money on war, that’s great,” Leal said. “But be prepared to spend the same amount when they come back."
Click through the slideshow below to see photos of the Vet Hunters Project at work.
Photos: Mellanie Villarreal/Facebook