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Wed, March 20

HOPE & HONOR: Homeless vet with mental illness fighting for dignity and justice

Jeanine sits outside a local business. She covers her face as she does not wish to be identified for her own security.
Photo by Nanci Hutson.

Jeanine sits outside a local business. She covers her face as she does not wish to be identified for her own security.

PRESCOTT - Jeanine is a college-educated, disabled U.S. Air Force veteran who survives day-to-day, sleeping in abandoned buses, storm drains and other out-of-the-way places that allow her to hide until she can muster the money to move somewhere more hospitable.

"I am homeless, and I mean homeless and on the streets. I'll sleep wherever I can," said the 36-year-old woman accompanied by a service dog she relies on for comfort and protection.

No stranger to homelessness, Jeanine's childhood and young adult life was fraught with family chaos and mental illness such that she suffered at least three bouts of homelessness before age 18 and at least eight episodes in her adult years. She enlisted in the Air Force as a means to gain some traction in her life, but suffered a "frontal lobe" injury 14 months into a "police action" in South Korea in 2000 that required her to be medically discharged from the military.

After the military, she used veteran benefits to attend Northern Arizona University where she earned two bachelor's degrees in science-related fields, but lived in a no-electricity RV in the woods while completing her education. She then returned to her hometown of Mesa, Arizona, and started a couple of businesses; one provided interior design services and the other was hazardous material cleanup. Family interference, and the economy, prompted both to close before she could earn a profit.

She secured a military disability pension based on her service-related injury that is compounded by a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress, depression and a personality disorder. Estranged from family, she ended up getting sent to the Prescott VA for assistance about two-and-a-half years ago.

For about 18 months, Jeanine was living in a housing facility operated through U.S. Vets Initiative. But she ended up giving up the apartment because she said male tenants in the complex harassed her such that she did not feel safe there. She tried again to work with the VA to get a federal, supportive housing subsidy but was informed there were no vouchers available locally.

She is not welcome at a local women's shelter because she got into a dispute with another client. Jeanine admits her mental illness makes it difficult for her to live around other people.

So Jeanine's plan this last spring was to relocate to somewhere with more subsidized housing options.

With money she "scrimped and saved" over the course of two years, Jeanine spent $6,000 to buy a 1999 sedan from what she thought was a reputable car dealer. Three days after she bought it, the car broke down.

Inside a purple sparkly envelope she carries with her everywhere - she rents a small storage unit to keep the bulk of her belongings - Jeanine has a stack of letters she has mailed to the dealer as well as the state Attorney General's Office and Better Business Bureau with hopes of at least getting her money back.

So far, Jeanine has been delivered a letter informing her of her rights under the state Lemon Law. Without the means to hire a lawyer, though, Jeanine said she has been left to protest this on her own.

"They have the car, they have my money, and I have nothing," said Jeanine who still retains the car title. "I desperately need that money back."

Another female vet, who asked to remain anonymous for her safety, can relate to Jeanine's plight because she said once someone is homeless they are no longer treated to the same rights as every other citizen. Many of the homeless are educated people who due to physical or mental illness, or loss of employment and family connections, find themselves without resources, said this woman who intermittently sleeps on friends' couches if not in her car somewhere. These men and women are not homeless because they want to be, but once homeless it can be very difficult to get back into the mainstream, she said.

Every day, Jeanine said she writes another letter, and visits local veteran-service agencies in hopes she will catch a break. She said she has learned through the Internet that there are subsidized housing vouchers available in Oregon. She just needs to get there so she can become eligible.

"If that car worked, I wouldn't be homeless," Jeanine said.

Volunteer homeless advocate Jean Lutz said Jeanine's story makes her want to cry. She said she is beyond frustrated that this community has organizations that tout "their good works, but they don't help the people they're supposed to help."

A determined woman despite her circumstances, Jeanine said she refuses to throw her hands up in the air. She continues to write letters and make phone calls so as to resolve the car issue sooner rather than later.

"I'm fighting this every step of the way," Jeanine said.

To remain homeless is "no choice for me, or anyone else who is mentally ill," Jeanine said. "There needs to be more respect for human life."

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