An estimated 200,000 veterans are homeless on any given night in America. One of them was Robert Scott Sr., who lived in a San Francisco alley for years. He started at one end and gradually made his way toward the other whenever he was forced to move.

One night in particular is etched in Scott’s memory. Just like he had done so many times before, he set up his shelter and went to sleep. A few hours before dawn, cold reality hit. The rain kicked up and the top of his cardboard shelter caved in under the weight of the water. “I remember jumping up around 3:30 in the morning,” Scott said of that 2002 night. “It was like a light bulb went on. I

The wakeup shower prompted him to start thinking more about getting off the streets, but to accomplish that, he needed the intervention of two strangers.

Scott, 55, was arrested that year on a drug charge, which turned out to be a blessing in disguise. He drew a lawyer and a judge who had both served in the military, as he had, and they helped their fellow veteran by connecting him with Swords to Plowshares, a longtime San Francisco-based nonprofit organization that provides housing, counseling, and other services to vets.

Scott went to live at the group’s transitional housing facility on Treasure Island. “I got a taste of life again,” he said. “I didn’t want to lose that taste.”

He stayed there for about two years, taking advantage of the different counseling and service programs available. Scott recently moved into the group’s permanent supportive housing program at the Presidio in San Francisco. He hadn’t cracked a textbook in about 40 years, but he is back in school attending classes at the local city college and earning As and Bs as he studies to become a drug and alcohol counselor.

He thinks about going back to the alley where he once lived and helping the people who are still there.

Scott’s military career began in 1970 when he joined the Army. He was preparing to leave for Vietnam, but didn’t go, he said, because he was shot by a man who tried to rob him. Scott dates that as the start of his downward spiral that eventually led him to living on the streets.

Scott and others believe that many vets become homeless because they return from duty with a host of issues such as post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, panic attacks, and substance abuse.

Economics is also a factor: People who work closely with the vets note that many service personnel are poor to begin with.

A new generation

The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) is optimistic that its efforts have lowered the number of former soldiers on the streets, but at the same time there’s concern that a new generation of combat veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan will come home and face similar hardships.

New Directions, Inc., a drug and alcohol treatment program that also provides food and shelter for veterans in Los Angeles, is working with about six veterans from the recent wars. The group has seen about a dozen in the past year, according to Toni Reinis, the organization’s executive director.

The Rev. Michael D. Wurschmidt, who ministers to homeless vets in Pittsburgh, said he knows of six homeless soldiers from Iraq and Afghanistan who are on the streets of his city.

All other things being equal, a man who has served in the military is about twice as likely to become homeless as a man who hasn’t. For a woman who has worn a uniform, the chances are even greater, said Michael Blecker, executive director of Swords to Plowshares in San Francisco. Blecker, a Vietnam vet, noted that more women than ever are in the military and in combat today.

His group is using space at two former military bases for housing. It has 60 vets in its transitional housing program on San Francisco’s Treasure Island, and another 100 living in permanent supportive housing at the Presidio.

VA efforts

The VA spends about $200 million a year in direct program support for the homeless, according to Peter Dougherty, the agency’s director of homeless veterans programs. That’s in addition to more than $1 billion in health-care services.

Dougherty is well aware of the large number of veterans living on the streets. About 10 years ago, the estimates were 250,000. The latest estimates have dropped to about 195,000. Accurate counts are hard to get, however, so the numbers and trends are uncertain.

What the available numbers do tell us: There’s about a one-in-three chance that the chronically homeless man you pass on the street is a veteran.

The VA works closely with local communities through its grant and per diem program. Since it began in 1992, the VA has committed more than $300 million to develop more than 10,000 transitional housing beds.

The VA recently awarded 52 grants worth nearly $11.6 million to nonprofit and faith-based groups for programs assisting homeless vets. In Pittsburgh, the Rev. Wurschmidt, who served in the Air Force, was one of the recipients. He plans to use a $59,525 grant to convert the second floor of the Shepherd’s Heart Fellowship into an “engagement center” for homeless veterans. It will include transitional housing for those who graduate from the VA’s drug and alcohol program.

Wurschmidt’s homeless ministry draws about 200 people on Sunday evenings. About 30 percent of them served in the military.

“It’s a cliche that you don’t leave a soldier behind,” he said, but he’s committed to that idea. He hopes the model that he creates at his church can be replicated in cities across the country.

Halfway across the country is the St. Leo Residence for Veterans being developed by Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Chicago. The 141-unit project, scheduled to be completed in early 2007, will be the first project built under the VA’s transitional housing loan guarantee program.

Under the program, the VA can guarantee up to 15 low-interest rate loans for an aggregate amount of about $100 million for multifamily transitional housing. The $15.5 million St. Leo Residence is also being financed with low-income housing tax credits. It is the first project that will be completed under the National Equity Fund’s (NEF) Homeless Veterans Initiative. NEF is a tax credit syndicator.

As important as the VA programs are, they alone are not enough to develop new housing, and they are focused toward transitional and not permanent housing. Service providers have to combine different funding sources, including homeless assistance grants and other resources from the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

Despite the efforts of the VA, HUD, and other agencies, the need continues to outpace the demand and the available funding.

L.A. story

Nowhere is the need felt more than in Los Angeles, which has the largest population of homeless veterans in the nation.

According to officials, about 11 percent of all veterans nationwide who were identified as homeless at intake in a VA hospital are in Los Angeles. An estimated 24,000 homeless vets live in the area, home to the country’s largest VA facility.

New Directions sees about 800 vets in its Los Angeles assessment center each year, said Reinis. The group has 225 beds in its drug and alcohol treatment program. All of the participants have been homeless. New Directions is developing another 150 permanent housing units for disabled vets. All of the case managers are graduates of the New Directions program.

Anthony Belcher, who is the assessment center and outreach supervisor, is one of its success stories.

“My story is about drug and alcohol abuse and where it took me,” he said.

Originally from Fort Wayne, Ind., Belcher, 49, enlisted in the Air Force, following his father’s footsteps. In the 1970s, when he was coming into his own, the atmosphere was “party till you drop,” he remembered.

Following a stint in the military where he was a supply clerk, Belcher studied acting, which led him to Hollywood. He said he found little work but lots of drugs, and by the 1980s, he was a crack addict. He bounced between prison and homelessness for 20 years. One of the places he called home was an abandoned bus in Long Beach, Calif., where he lived for about four months.

In 2003, Belcher said he had “a moment of clarity.” He got out of his bus one day and found the streets eerily empty. A voice inside warned Belcher that he needed to get off the streets. He listened and went to a detoxification center, which referred him to New Directions because of his military service.

He moved into the New Directions facility that June and stayed for the next year. “I was homeless, hopeless, angry, and afraid,” Belcher remembered. A tough case manager made his life miserable, he said, but also made him clean up his act.

Belcher eventually became an assessment center attendant and then the supervisor in 2005. More importantly, he has reconnected with his children in Indiana. “I was able to go home with my head held up,” he said.

He is now helping other veterans. He spent a day recently passing out lunches and blankets to veterans and other homeless people on the streets of Los Angeles—the same streets he’d made his home less than three years before.

He’s come a long way.