Veterans stand in line at a homeless shelter. (Photo: AP)
It was, back then, a joke Luis Pinto shared with his Army buddies in Iraq. As they were all eating food out of tin cans, living out of rucksacks, moving constantly from place to place, Pinto cracked, "If I become homeless, I'm ready."
But five years later he didn't actually expect to find himself sleeping in alleys in Whittier or in friends' cars, too busy getting high to hold down a regular job. A suicide attempt on March 16 was the shock he needed to start putting his life back together.
His mother drove him to the Salvation Army's shelter in Bell, where he has been living and taking classes on drug addiction and coping skills since the end of March.
"I had a lot of issues from my time in the service and I had not dealt with them," said Pinto, a soft-spoken 27-year-old who still sports a military crew cut. "I felt, when I came out, 'I deserve time to relax and party.' It got out of control."
While veterans and homeless advocates have long grappled with homelessness in previous generations of veterans, Pinto appears to be part of a new, building wave of the problem among those coming back from the latest wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Though most of the Bell shelter's veterans served in Vietnam, executive director La Rae Neal said last week that she was deeply saddened to see the number of clients from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars multiply from two last year to eight so far this year.
"I think we were doing well as far as vets from the last war were concerned," she said. "But we've got to start all over again."
Toni Reinis, the executive director of New Directions Inc., another organization that offers substance abuse treatment and other services to homeless veterans, said the number of clients from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars grew from 12 in 2007 to 24 in 2008. In the first six months of this year, the group has already seen 20, she said.
"I think that we've got another couple of years before we say it's a crisis," she said. But, she added, "we're still on an uphill climb."
New Directions and other organizations said they are working to put programs in place to deal with the expected increase in veterans needing help.
Last year, New Directions opened a transitional house for Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans in the Del Rey neighborhood of Los Angeles with 24-hour support staff.
On Thursday, officials at the Bell shelter unveiled nine prefabricated houses. The houses, which can hold six people each, will serve as transitional housing for those who graduate from the shelter's drug and alcohol treatment programs or get referrals from other agencies.
The Bell shelter has set aside 30 beds for veterans, several of whom will probably be Iraq and Afghanistan vets, Neal said.
Robert Hovis, a 62-year-old Vietnam vet who hopes to get into one of the houses, said it took him a long time to understand the effect the war had on him and the damage he was doing to himself.
He said he tries to keep a special eye on the veterans of the new generation and talk to them.
"It reminds me of me all over again," Hovis said. "I know what they're going through."
Pinto, who also hopes to get through his treatment program and get a bed in one of the new houses, said he has been inspired by older vets at the shelter who have tried to help him through some rough patches.
When he sees older vets opening up about their difficulties, Pinto said he thinks, "I'm not the only one. If he can do it, I can."
Pinto said he is learning how he used drugs to forget about the trauma he experienced in Iraq and how he clung to other users as replacements for his Army buddies. He said he also recognizes now that many of his problems stemmed from going from a structured Army environment to a completely unstructured civilian one.
He said he hopes that the transitional house can be a steppingstone to true independence and going to college to become a social worker.
Pinto also wants to rebuild his relationship with his family. When his mother dropped him off at the Bell shelter, "she said this was the last time she was going to help me if I didn't get it right," he said. "I took it to heart."