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Last Updated: Friday, 9 November 2007, 17:40 GMT
Living as a veteran of the streets
One in four homeless people in the US is a military veteran, a report has found, even though veterans make up only 11% of the adult population. One former soldier told his story to the BBC's Vincent Dowd in Washington.

A homeless man in Washington DC (file picture)
A disproportionate number of the homeless are military veterans

Only a year ago, Ben Israel could have been forgiven for thinking nothing would ever go right with his life again.

He had been mainly homeless since his early 30s, living either on the streets of the richest nation in the world or in a selection of public shelters. Sometimes he lived in his car.

Ben was born on an army base in the US state of North Carolina, where his father was a soldier.

When he was 18 months old he swallowed - or maybe was given - furniture polish. He was in a coma for days.

He blames this for his occasionally hesitant speech and some of the problems he has had throughout life. "It caused me issues," he says simply.

Yet today you only need to spend a few minutes with him to recognise a keen intelligence too.

Soup kitchens

In 1973, conscription ended in America - but that year Ben volunteered for the US Army artillery corps anyway.

What I would mainly do was move
Ben Israel

He was just 17 and says he feared winding up in prison otherwise, because there was so little money around.

He just missed Vietnam but saw service, less dramatically, in Panama. He was only in the army for three years.

I ask if he has ever married. "Not officially," he says.

After the US Army, mainly he travelled and worked and he studied a little. From the late 1980s to November 2006 he was usually homeless - although there were brief periods here and there with a roof over his head.

He tries to recall the cities whose soup kitchens he got to know too well: "Dallas, Texas. Miami, Florida. Atlanta, Georgia - twice. Fayetteville, North Carolina. Portland, Oregon..."

He acknowledges there were others he may have forgotten. "What I would mainly do was move."

Charity salvation

Ben, at 51, is honest enough to acknowledge that some problems of his thirties and forties were of his own making.

A man sleeps rough on the streets (file picture)
Ben Israel believes more focus is needed on housing veterans

But he also believes his middle years showed how badly America's Department of Veterans Affairs - the VA - has sometimes focused its resources.

"They are a giant cash-cow but they are spending their money in the wrong areas. If they put more emphasis on housing their charges that would solve most of their issues out on the street."

Ben's life has improved - more than he ever expected it might. But ultimately salvation came from a charity, not the VA.

He was in line at one more soup kitchen when he was approached by someone from Pathways to Housing.

It is a New York-based charity which, for 17 years, has helped the homeless who have psychiatric problems.

Important for Ben was that, as Pathway's mission statement makes clear, they do not require treatment or sobriety as a pre-condition of getting someone into an apartment.

Their philosophy is that the path to recovery starts with getting off the street and under a roof.

Watching squirrels

Ben's apartment in Marshall Heights in Washington DC is not big but it is clean and well kept.

Ben intends to find a job again and get off Social Security Disability Insurance. He dreams of being an electrician. "But I want a career - not a job," he says.

We get in a cab and travel to Franklin Square, in downtown Washington.

It's where a lot of still homeless veterans hang out during the day - some of Ben Israel's age, some a little younger. There is not much to do but watch the squirrels.

Ben passes on the phone number of the people who after almost two decades helped him escape his wasted life.

He is a middle-aged man who found a sort of salvation when all hope seemed gone. He wants others to share in the same good fortune.

SEE ALSO
Veterans 'quarter of US homeless'
08 Nov 07 |  Americas

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