Vet Hunters is a group of Air Force, Army, Marine and Navy veterans who find homeless vets and link them with resources to get them off the street. (U.S. Air Force video by Jimmy D. Shea)
The homeless military veteran lives mostly in homes made of tarp or tent among the rest of the Skid Row population in downtown Los Angeles. Some of the city’s homeless walk on bare feet or torn socks. Others are missing teeth or limbs. Many reveal vacant expressions of people living for years without all their basic needs met.
Life among the city’s homeless has been described as “running in quicksand” – once a person lands on Skid Row, it’s almost impossible to escape without a hand to pull you out. Fortunately, there’s such a hand reaching for the city’s homeless veterans, no matter the service.
A stocky-built Army veteran searched from behind dark sunglasses as he stepped carefully around the makeshift homes. Some of the people continued sleeping, others talked, and a few engaged him in short conversation. Most of them had often seen Travis Goforth and his companions, easily recognizable in their brightly-colored Vet Hunters Project T-shirts, to know they were not the police. They are the Vet Hunters who search LA streets, underpasses and camps outside of the city for homeless veterans.
“Any veterans here?” Goforth continually called out until he finally found one at the corner of Fifth Street and Gladys Avenue. Within just a few minutes, Joqu David shared an all too familiar story of addiction and homelessness after his military career from the corner where he lived with everything he owned.
“It’s camping,” David said with a shrug. “It’s just like Iraq out here.”
“It’s rough going through a program, brother. I’ll tell you that flat out,” Goforth told him. “But are you tired yet? Tired of using? Walk down there and tell them that.”
The veteran stepped forward to the sidewalk from his makeshift home and hugged Goforth. He’d understood one of the most important messages Goforth tries to convey to every veteran he encounters: Someone cares about them.
“When a veteran reaches out, it’s when they’re at the end of their last rope,” Goforth said. “They’re at that point where they’re either going to change their life, or they’re going to end their life. It helps me to understand because I was once there. I wanted to quit. It taught me when to look for that desperation, and when to reach out and say, ‘Hey, I got you. Come with me.’”
Unfortunately, homeless veterans don’t always follow through even after meeting an advocate, such as a Vet Hunter. David promised Goforth he would attend an event just a few blocks away that would have led him to resources, including treatment for his addiction, and get him off the street. But he didn’t show and wasn’t on his corner when Goforth returned several times to find him. Still, the Vet Hunter continued to go back to that corner, determined to find his fellow veteran again.
Miles from Skid Row in a desert camp outside LA in Duarte, a gray-bearded, shirtless man smoked a cigarette as he lay underneath the shade of a massive tree in a homemade bed he set up on a grocery store fruit stand and bicycle. Several Vet Hunters, including Goforth and Vet Hunters Project founder Joe Leal, had just found Stoney Burke, a 64-year-old veteran in the camp with the San Gabriel Mountains behind it. A few days earlier, Burke moved his bed closer to the dirt road from his original shelter in a circus tent after a close call with a Mojave rattlesnake. Another homeless person in the camp recently died from a snakebite, and Leal promised to get snakebite kits to the camp’s mayor. Mayors serve as the points of contact between the Vet Hunters and people who live in their camps.
“I can tell my story to anybody, and they would believe me if they were a veteran,” Burke said. “If I tell it to somebody who’s not a veteran, it’s so unbelievable, they will never believe me. If he’s a veteran, I respect him from the get-go. I know what he’s been through; he knows what I’ve been through.”
The life on Skid Row may be like quicksand, but many people provide resources to the homeless in the downtown LA site. In the camps, they’re mostly on their own and rely on each other. It’s even bleaker for the homeless trying to get by under the shelter of overpasses.
“The difference out here, as you can see from how some of these people are living, is there’s no assistance from the city,” said Julio Cesar Sandoval, an Air Force and Navy veteran who retired as a communications squadron first sergeant in 2014. “Instead, the cities are trying to bounce them back and forth from one to the other because they don’t want them in their city. There are no resources out here at all. So whatever they get, they get from panhandling and standing on the streets asking for assistance. It’s definitely a harder way to survive out here in this environment versus downtown LA.”
Whichever setting veterans are struggling to survive in, the Vet Hunters are driven to find them. To Goforth, a homeless veteran is a brother left behind. Early in Operation Iraqi Freedom, he served as a sergeant in the 137th Quartermaster Company with Leal. On Nov. 15, 2003, their friend, Master Sgt. Kelly Bolor was among 17 service members killed when two UH-60 Black Hawks crashed in Mosul, Iraq. The loss sent Goforth spiraling into alcoholism, drug abuse and on the brink of suicide. Twice, he was about to end his life when an anonymous friend sent a short, but effective message. The first time, Goforth climbed to the top of a mountain where he didn’t believe anyone could reach him because he didn’t think there was cellphone service.
“Right after I stuck the gun to my head, my cellphone went off,” Goforth said. “I couldn’t see my caller ID, and all I heard on the other end of the line was a voice saying, ‘Somebody loves you.’ It stopped me. So I climbed back down the mountain and got rid of the gun. But I still kept doing what I had been doing – drinking and doing dope.
“On my next suicide attempt, I was about to drag my knife up my arm in the backyard of my son’s mother’s house. Right when it hit my arm, my phone went off again, and I got a text message: ‘Somebody loves you.’”
Goforth tried to kill himself one last time, but the rope he used to hang himself snapped in two. So he called his father who took him to the Salvation Army, where he finally found addiction treatment. When he reached the point of making amends and offering himself in service to others, Goforth reached out to his old friend, and Leal told him about the Vet Hunters Project.
Leal founded Vet Hunters in 2010 as a grassroots organization that worked to prevent homelessness among veterans and their families. Leal describes Vet Hunters as a “search and rescue operation.” They find homeless veterans in alleys, abandoned buildings, streets, and under bridges and provide them with necessary information, resources, and supplies.
“I believe that through our daily actions and events, it helps bring us closer to seeing a day where the word ‘homeless’ will never be followed by ‘veteran,’ Leal said.
For years, Los Angeles County has had the nation’s largest concentration of homeless veterans, with the last count at more than 6,500 of the almost 58,000 across the nation. The city’s homeless veteran population increased 6 percent in the last two years. But LA’s overall homelessness rose 12 percent in both the city and county since 2013, according to the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority.
As winter approaches, the Vet Hunters have other concerns because the temperatures get cold enough in Southern California to endanger the health of people living outdoors 24/7. So, the advocates are often out until early morning hours distributing blankets, jackets, socks, and other clothing items, and even covering up some of the homeless where they lay. While they are specifically looking for military veterans, they also help others while out searching.
The life is particularly rough for female veterans. Suicide, a major risk for homeless veterans, is an elevated one for women. According to the Los Angeles Times, female veterans commit suicide at almost six times the rate of other women, based on a government analysis of almost 174,000 suicides in 23 states between 2000 and 2010.
One factor contributing to the problem for women is they often will not identify themselves as veterans and they only ask for help as a last resort, said Kristine Hesse, a women’s veterans outreach director for the National Veterans Foundation. She is a retired Air Force master sergeant who moved to LA after her discharge in 2012.
“Almost 60 percent of veterans are separated with no job and no place to live,” Hesse said. “We just assume we will be able to find a job and a place to live with no problems, and that’s not the case at all.”
Fortunately, Vet Hunters has an advantage many other groups don’t. As fellow veterans, they share a common culture and speak the same language as the people they’re searching for. But one major obstacle is that homeless veterans may be accustomed to unfulfilled promises. People are constantly finding them on the streets and telling them they will be back or will make a connection that will help get them and their families to a safe place, only to never see or hear from them again. So Vet Hunters make following up on a connection with a homeless vet a priority.
“My goal is, at the minimum, to instill hope in each veteran that I run into,” Goforth said. “I want to, at least, have a message of hope that says, ‘You’ve seen me, you’ve met me, and you will see me again.’ The maximum effort that I can put out there is to make them believe that I was once where they are, and if you want help, let’s go.
“Because I know that when I was there at that moment, I couldn’t grasp the fact that people were actually trying to help me. I thought they were trying to tell me that I was some dirt bag because, in my mind, I was a dirt bag.”
The ultimate goal is to get every veteran off the street, but there’s also another important byproduct of Vet Hunters’ search and rescue operation. Even if they can’t immediately convince a veteran to leave the street life many have become comfortable with, they hope they will at least learn they can trust them during the most desperate times.
“I want to make sure that each vet knows that they’re not alone,” Goforth said, “that they have a brother they can reach out at any moment and say, ‘Hey, man, I’m having a bad day.’ That’s when I blow up their phone.”
Goforth continued to return to the corner of Fifth Street and Gladys Avenue to find David. He eventually learned that the missing veteran had finally sought treatment in an addiction rehabilitation program. Although his efforts to find him were unsuccessful, Goforth’s message to him was not. That message was simple: “Somebody’s got to love you more than you’ve learned to love yourself.”