After returning to San Antonio from serving in the U.S. Army, Frederick Gardner had nowhere of his own to go. When things didn’t work out with his girlfriend, he was out of options of places to stay.
Gardner left active duty and is now in the National Guard, so he’s not sure when he will be called into service. His pay is unstable and low. The difficult transition from the secure, structured environment of the military to the less predictable, civilian life in the city didn’t make things easier.
But Gardner never found himself sleeping on the streets or in a shelter. Instead, he stayed on friends’ and family’s couches. He wanted a place of his own, but didn’t know how to make that happen, especially since he was on unemployment and had monthly child support payments.
“I’ve been so used to being the person in charge of where I’ve stayed, so to go through this – it was (emasculating),” he said. “It was a horrible feeling.”
Gardner’s case is not unique. In fact, it’s all too common across the United States, even right here in San Antonio. According to the South Alamo Regional Alliance for the Homeless, about seven percent (263) of the 2,781 homeless individuals in San Antonio are military veterans.
That’s why the American G.I. Forum and other local organizations made it their mission to find ways to help. Mayor Ivy Taylor, who committed to the Mayors Challenge to End Veteran Homelessness in January 2015, announced that San Antonio effectively ended local veteran homelessness this spring.
The American G.I. Forum’s Veteran Outreach Program is one resource that helped make that possible. The program offers eligible homeless veterans services such as job training, educational tools, emergency food assistance, and housing, either in the organization’s residential center or through its rapid re-housing program.
Through the program, Gardner was assigned a case manager who helped him navigate through the daunting process of locating an affordable apartment where he could start fresh. The program also provided him with financial assistance and other elements of support that propelled him forward into the stability he so badly craved.
“I can come home and that’s almost priceless – to be able to come somewhere where everybody in the outside world has to stay at the door,” he said. “It’s peaceful.”
The American G.I. Forum’s efforts, and those of several other organizations, were recently bolstered by a portion of $2.1 million donated by USAA to local, state, and federal support systems that work to address veteran homelessness across the country. The funds helped San Antonio achieve the Mayor’s Challenge’s “functional zero” goal of homelessness, meaning that every veteran in the city has access to permanent housing and the community has the resources to rapidly stabilize veterans on the brink of homelessness.
With the USAA funds, the American G.I. Forum was able to house 133 local homeless veterans in a span of about 45-50 days, said Carlos Martinez, American G.I. Forum president and CEO. In Gardner’s case, the organization used the funds to subsidize his apartment rent for three months while he got back on his feet, found a job, and established a good housing record, which ultimately allowed him to move into a more permanent residence.
“It’s a case by case (process),” Martinez said. “Our primary goal is to make them self-sufficient, which comes in different forms.”
Since the American G.I. Forum was founded in San Antonio more than 40 years ago, the organization has continued to expand its reach to more people in need across the city, Martinez said. Though San Antonio has “effectively ended” veteran homelessness, the work doesn’t stop there.
“It’s fantastic to celebrate what we’ve accomplished … (but we shouldn’t forget) that there’s more people in the street we need to deal with,” he said. “We need to maintain that infrastructure.”
Having a roof over his head has provided Gardner with more confidence and stability, and has enabled him to have his two kids visit and stay the night, something he’s proud of.
“Thinking about my kids doesn’t make me sad anymore. It used to make me sad because all I could think about was the stuff I couldn’t do for them,” he said.
“If everything didn’t perfectly work out the way it (did), I wouldn’t be here. So, I’m satisfied.”
This article has been updated with the up-to-date number of homeless in San Antonio streets according to the 2016 Point in Time count.