A possum saved Robert Jurado’s life.
A couple of months after Jurado graduated Alisal High School in 1989, he joined the Marines. He served four years before heading back to Salinas, and straight into trouble.
“After being out of the Marine Corps for a few years, I hit a bottom like no other,” says the 43-year-old father of four. “I ended up on the streets wandering aimlessly with a bottle of vodka in my back pocket.”
He was homeless, crashing on couches and sinking deeper into alcoholism. One cold night, as he came out of a drunken stupor he stumbled across a possum. It had sharp teeth and dark black eyes. It scared the hell out of him.
He turned and ran, before falling on his knees and begging to God.
“I just surrendered,” Jurado says. “When I was in the Marine Corps I was taught never to surrender. It took me a long time to get to that point.”
Jurado, determined to sober up, discovered the Veterans Transition Center, which gave him a place to get himself together. Now five years clean, he works at the VTC and has been accepted into CSU Monterey Bay for a degree in social work.
The number of veterans who’ve joined the ranks of the homeless is striking, but that number has plummeted in recent years. About 9 percent of the homeless are vets, according to Will Fischer from the nonprofit Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Since 2010, the federal government has turbocharged its effort to help these homeless vets, reducing homelessness among vets by 23 percent so far. The goal is to eliminate veteran homelessness by 2015 – and in this year’s proposed budget, President Barack Obama is asking for $1.4 billion to aid that effort.
In Monterey County, the last homeless census counted 229 homeless vets, though VTC Executive Director Terry Bare estimates the number falls between 900 and 1,200, considering people couch-surfing or living in substandard conditions.
VTC only has about 60 slots open in its residential program, and other homeless services are often in high demand.
Last September VTC appealed to the public for $1.2 million to renovate a new set of houses, formerly part of Fort Ord, to add 60 more units. But they’ve only received $120,000 so far, Bare says. Vets are allowed to stay at the VTC housing program for up to 24 months while they receive services, like substance abuse counseling and life skills training.
This year the nonprofit launched a new campaign called “Raise the Roof” to reach an even higher target: $3 million. Given the federal priority on ending vet homelessness, Bare is confident that VTC will be able to secure grants. He’s also looking, again, for community support.
“These are veterans who fought, sacrificed,” Bare says. “Now it’s time to give back to them.”
The funds, he says, will double VTC’s capacity to take in vets for its own program and help the center put vets into outside homes and apartments. Part of the success of the Department of Veterans’ Affairs effort to end homelessness among vets is the “housing first model,” which gives the homeless a place to live before tackling other issues.