WASHINGTON — Every night in America, about 70,000 veterans sleep on the streets. For 30 years, Gerard Thomas was one of them.
A paranoid schizophrenic, Thomas took a long time to get back indoors after serving in a stateside military hospital during the Vietnam War.
In and out of prison, mental institutions and straitjackets for decades, sleeping on park benches, in doorways or in the woods, Thomas was living proof of the holes in our social safety net.
He kept looking for help, he said, but like many veterans of that war, all he heard was “No.”
“Back then, people didn’t understand how damaged we were,” said Thomas, 62, who now devotes his life to helping homeless veterans.
It was hard to tell, but we just held a wartime presidential election. While the hot topic was the 1 percent who rule the nation’s finances, few words were given to the 1 percent who fight the nation’s wars.
And here we are, heading into another Veterans Day weekend, when vets get offered restaurant discounts and free Slurpees while thousands of their comrades are living on the streets.
Thomas goes to those places where he once slept, ate and hid throughout the Washington region and tries to find the homeless veterans.
If you’ve spent any time downtown, you’ve probably met Thomas. Or, more likely, you’ve tried to avoid him.
“I hated people. Hated them,” the Army veteran told me, taking the eyeglasses off and letting them dangle on his chest by a cord, like a librarian.
Today, he has an apartment, a bike, a big desk he bought online and a three-computer workstation. He also has a mission.
There are veterans fresh out of Iraq or Afghanistan who returned to find their personal world collapsed and a barren job market. Some of them need assistance to stay off the streets, Thomas says.
He interrupts himself to answer a call from a father of three who recently returned from a deployment and lost his home.
Thomas, who works as a certified peer counselor to homeless veterans and mental-health patients with Pathways to Housing, pulls out the man’s case file. (“I am certified and certifiable,” he quips.)
The Department of Veterans Affairs and Pathways recently partnered to use housing vouchers and federal benefits to help low-income vets get under a roof and get stable.
And they’re using folks like Thomas, who has been there and understands the unique difficulty that homeless vets face, to get other vets help.
He got his apartment eight years ago, when Pathways began its radical program to get chronically homeless folks like Thomas off the street by simply putting them in apartments, few questions asked.
“There is nothing like indoor plumbing,” he said. “And a medicine cabinet.”
Between his hospitalizations, court dates, prison sentences and nights in the clink over those three lost decades, Thomas cost the government hundreds of thousands of dollars.
A quick court-records search of Thomas turns up a long list of assaults, weapons charges, knives, guns, fugitive alerts. He says he once took a guard hostage during a riot at the Lorton Correctional Complex in Lorton, Va.
“Are you sure I can’t get you some tea?” he asked me on a chilly morning this week when I visited his cozy basement apartment. “Or how about some raisin toast? With apricot spread?”
Today, as a functioning member of society who goes to work, creates Web pages, smiles at passersby, and offers tea and toast to visitors, he survives with the help of a $202 monthly housing subsidy.
But he still battles mental illness. Throughout our day together, he often stopped while talking to listen to all the noise in his mind.
“I still hear the voices,” he explained. “It took me a while to accept them but not allow them to control me.”
And then he rejoins the conversation.
Other times, when someone talks about children or marriage, he also drifts. It reminds him of his one happy year in a little apartment off Alabama Avenue, when he was working for the phone company and he and his wife had two kids.
“On nights we went up on the roof, and saw the stars in each other’s eyes,” he says, looking up at the ceiling.
He lost it all when those voices drowned his head. He lost his wife, his friends, his family. He hasn’t spoken to his kids in 15 years.
“There are things you can’t undo,” he said. His wife is dead, and he believes he can’t see his kids again.
Instead, he spends every day trying to keep other veterans from losing everything, too.
“I would give anything — anything — to make sure that nobody goes down that road I went down. Lost 30 years. It didn’t have to happen.”
No, it didn’t.
Petula Dvorak is a Washington Post columnist.