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Hope & Honor: Hardest life lesson for this Army veteran was homelessness (VIDEO)

Army Veteran Dennis Hutchinson spends time with his PTSD dog Shaggy at his apartment in Prescott.  Hutchinson was homeless for several years before the VA arranged for him to get housing.
Photo by Matt Hinshaw.

Army Veteran Dennis Hutchinson spends time with his PTSD dog Shaggy at his apartment in Prescott. Hutchinson was homeless for several years before the VA arranged for him to get housing.

PRESCOTT - Sitting inside his small, one-bedroom apartment decorated with a large American flag and stained glass décor he made out of recycled materials, U.S. Army Intelligence veteran Dennis Hutchinson said nothing in his life readied him for homelessness.

"Being homeless is the hardest job I ever had," said the 52-year-old who at one time owned his own computer company and worked as an executive chef on oil rigs.

His despair proved so acute that two years ago he was hospitalized after four separate suicide attempts. After the last one, the local VA doctor prescribed him what he considers a magical elixir for his depression: his trained service dog, Shaggy, a terrier/Bassett Hound mix.

"I love him so much, and he loves me back," the 52-year-old said of the 3-year-old canine he lives with in an apartment he is able to rent as a recipient of one of the local VA's federal Housing and Urban Development Veteran Affairs Supportive Housing vouchers (HUD-VASH).

The federal Department of Veterans Administration started the HUD-VASH program in 2008 with a formula that takes into account geographic area, homelessness and public housing availability. Since the start of the program that combines housing with VA-provided case management, some 79,000 vouchers have been distributed.

National experts in the field of homelessness tout supportive housing endeavors as the means to end chronic homelessness.

Voucher recipients pay 30 percent of their income that cannot exceed federal guidelines, which for a single individual would be no more than $19,600 annually. The rental cap for a one-bedroom apartment is $704.

The Northern Arizona Veteran Affairs Health Care System has been awarded 70 such vouchers for the Prescott area over the past seven years, all of which have now been distributed with no expectation of any new ones in the near future, VA officials said. The federal VA did release vouchers for this year to benefit the northern Arizona Indian reservations, 20 for Navajo tribe veterans and 15 for the Hopis.

Hutchinson was deemed a candidate for the program because he was homeless for three years - he lived in a no-utilities camper in the woods in Winslow - and has a 30-year diagnosis of bipolar disorder. He is also a recovering cocaine addict and three years ago was diagnosed with a debilitating heart ailment.

His physical and mental health have so far prevented him from obtaining full-time employment, although he has honed his artistic talents such that he sells stained glass, wire sculptures and beaded jewelry at local art fairs. He is attempting to create an online art business even as he and his case manager work on the application for Social Security disability benefits.

His current rent is just under $600 a month, and he is eligible for food stamps.

Unlike some homeless veterans, Hutchinson has nothing but admiration for what VA officials have done for him. Prior to his eligibility for the HUD-VASH program, Hutchinson was enrolled in the domiciliary program at the VA.

Hutchinson lauds his case managers and Suicide Prevention Coordinator Joey Carr for saving his life.

"Dennis sort of represents a lot of our veterans," Carr said. "They hit a really bad patch in their life. Quite often, we have veterans with mental health issues, and then there is a trigger, a new medical issue comes up, or it's a loss of friends; we have an aging population and we lose a lot of veterans."

The biggest struggle for Hutchinson was reaching out for help in the first place. "I was raised to be self-sufficient," Hutchinson said. "And so to ask for help was the hardest thing I ever had to do."

Hutchinson's father, Thomas, spent his career in the Air Force, including time as a POW in Vietnam, and after Hutchinson graduated from high school he enlisted in the U.S. Army where he then spent six years stationed in Germany.

After the Army, Hutchinson joined his father in a trucking company in New Mexico, but he did not like the work and so went to Texas Tech to earn a degree in public relations.

He then landed some sales and telemarketing jobs, and eventually ended up as a salesman for Kirby Vacuums in Dallas, Texas.

"I was real good at it," Hutchinson said, noting at one point he was earning an annual income of about $120,000.

Then he got sidetracked by an introduction to cocaine.

"That almost ruined my life," Hutchinson said of his almost 20-year addiction.

He eventually pulled up stakes and moved to Lafayette, Louisiana, where he spent the next 15 years working as an executive steward on oil rigs. During those years, he said he was "off and on sober."

In 2009, Hutchinson lost his parents and he ended up moving to Winslow to be closer to family.

With some of his savings, Hutchinson opened up his own computer company, The Computer Guy, and worked part-time as a cook at a local Denny's Restaurant.

A year later, Hutchinson said he suffered a back injury.

"I don't remember how I did it," he said.

From there, Hutchinson said his life spiraled down. Suddenly, he was estranged from his family and homeless.

Forced to reach out for help, Hutchinson counts himself lucky that the VA connected him with Carr.

"We desperately wanted to get him in the domiciliary," Carr said of the VA's long-standing program to provide clinical and mental health care to disenfranchised veterans, some who are homeless or at-risk for homelessness.

Hutchinson, however, was unable to be admitted immediately because he first had to undergo heart surgery that required several stents. Carr, though, did not relent on his care during the delay, but rather was in weekly, or more frequent, contact as prescribed by VA suicide prevention protocols.

Once he was medically stable, Hutchinson was eligible for admission.

With the help of the VA and regular therapy at the VA mental health clinic, Hutchinson feels like his life is now stable, despite the occasional ups and downs.

"I needed the 'Dennis' recovery, to become comfortable in my own skin again. I had no confidence in myself."

Carr attributes Hutchinson's ongoing progress, and optimism despite adversity, with his willingness to take advantage of what the VA has to offer.

"And not all veterans do that," she said.

"It's a shared responsibility," Carr said. "If they do their part, we'll do our part. And Dennis really came through on doing his part of getting well."

Someone who never lost his sense of honor, Hutchinson is a veteran she finds "easy to work with, a joy."

Each day, Hutchinson said he attempts to complete one art project; often he is able to do two or three.

He has recently learned how to make copper flutes, and at a holiday art sale in November he was able to sell several of them at $30 each.

His life may not be what he once envisioned, but Hutchinson said he and Shaggy are content. And he hopes for better days ahead.

"I sometimes have a hard time sleeping, but I just keep on going," Hutchinson concluded.

Follow Nanci Hutson on Twitter @HutsonNanci. Reach her at 928-445-3333 ext. 2041 or 928-642-6809.

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