Senate passes veteran aid bill

Jessica Thompson

When homeless veteran Willis McKinley came home from the Vietnam War, he thought he could leave his drug addictions, depression and painful memories of combat behind.

McKinley came back to Minnesota expecting recognition and respect. But instead, “We were called baby rapers and killers and murderers,” said the 48-year-old Navy veteran.

He ended up losing his wife and job and begging on the streets of St. Paul to support his heroin addiction.

Teresa Little left the Army in 1985, depressed and longing for a peaceful, domestic life. Instead, she was abandoned by her husband and became suicidal. She turned to alcohol and cocaine for comfort.

It wasn’t until this year that the two veterans finally found help.

“I looked at myself in the mirror one day, and I just started crying. I couldn’t take it no more,” Little said. “There had to be a better life.”

McKinley and Little are just two of the more than 3,400 homeless veterans in Minnesota who could benefit from legislation passed by the U.S. Senate on Friday.

The Heather French Homeless Veterans Assistance Act – sponsored by Sen. Paul Wellstone, D-Minn. – will expand Veterans Assistance health care programs, increase compensated-work therapy programs and mental health facilities, build more transitional housing and address ways to prevent homelessness.

“It is a national scandal that our nation has done so little to end homelessness for an estimated 350,000 of our citizen-soldiers nationwide Ö My bill is aimed at reversing this shameful trend,” Wellstone said in a release Friday.

The bill will cost roughly $900 million over a four-year period, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

During a July Senate hearing, one Bush administration official said the bill could be harmful to non-homeless veterans, whose services might be limited to make up for the cost.

The legislation – named after Miss America 2000 for her efforts in combating homelessness among veterans – endured a battle in the Senate, where it faced a two-week secret hold from an anonymous Republican.

A similar bill passed the House, and the two legislative bodies are working to draft a final version for President George W. Bush to sign.

Jimmie Coulthard, executive director of the Minnesota Assistance Council for Veterans, said 1 percent of Minnesota’s 430,000 veterans are homeless.

“If we can’t solve (homelessness) with a population so identifiable ñ homeless veterans ñ then we’re not going to solve it
anywhere,” Coulthard said.

Coulthard said matters are
sometimes more complicated for veterans, many of whom suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder.

“They’re homeless for the same reasons as others are. But Ö they do have a higher incidence of mental health issues. The difference is often because of combat-related stressers,” he said.

More than 90 percent of homeless veterans have also had alcohol, drug or mental health problems, said Jeff Olson, commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Veterans Affairs.

McKinley said drug use was a form of bonding among frightened military personnel in Vietnam.

“I was exposed to a lot of things I never had been before, like heroin addicts Ö and blowing reefer through a shotgun,” McKinley said. “It was kind of like a camaraderie that Ö if you didn’t get high you were considered a square.”

“We did defend our country, but we had some problems along the way,” he said.

Both McKinley and Little are residents at the Minnesota Assistance Council for Veterans, which provides employment, housing, job training and living skills classes for approximately 100 homeless veterans per month.

Little said that when she first sought help at a mental institution in 1985, she was turned away after 10 days. She said she hopes Wellstone’s bill will keep the government from pushing homeless veterans aside.

“They’ve helped me get back on my feet, get a job, get counseling and save my money,” Little said. “I’m looking forward to getting married again, starting a new family and a new life.”

Jessica Thompson welcomes comments at [email protected]