By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
On a Thursday morning not long ago, a volunteer named Twyla stands in front of a group of clients at Justa, a day program for homeless seniors, explaining what she's brought from the food bank.
"I hope that those of you who don't have many teeth, that you'll be okay with the salad," she says, adding that she's also brought blueberry pomegranate juice. "And cake for dessert!"
Scott Ritchey rolls his eyes good-naturedly as he passes through the room, where the fluorescent light doesn't do any favors for the dirty linoleum and the worn-out, mismatched couches. For the past three years, this decrepit little building near the Arizona Capitol has been a godsend for about 100 homeless seniors who have nothing to do with their days, after waking up at the nearby shelter.
On any given day, about half the participants are veterans.
There's a special unit reserved for veterans at the shelter, but the waiting list is long, so many vets sleep in a parking lot euphemistically called "the overflow." Justa gives them a mailing address, a place to shower, access to the Internet and phone, lockers to store their belongings.
When Ritchey, a Methodist minister, started the program — which operates on about $260,000 a year, all private donations — one of the first things he did was call the local office of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to get some help for the vets.
It took a year for anyone to show up. And in three years, Ritchey says, the VA has yet to place a single Justa Center vet in housing. There are programs in town that offer housing for veterans, but they've got to prove they're employed.
"You're 82 years old. You don't need to work," Ritchey says.
Almost all his clients have diabetes; many have dementia. Add untreated depression and post-traumatic stress disorder and you have a bad situation, particularly when you have to battle the VA's bureaucracy. Ritchey regularly finds vets napping on the floor by the Coke machine; the sleeping area is too dark and claustrophobic, they tell him.
He recalls one client who needed open-heart surgery. The VA scheduled a doctor's appointment in Tucson, two hours away, and advised the homeless man to rent a car to drive down and spend the night in a hotel. Ritchey intervened and got the man to Tucson; he hasn't heard from him since.
Ritchey's careful not to place direct blame on the VA, which he describes as "underfunded, understaffed, and overwhelmed," but he's clearly frustrated.
Michole Felder, a job counselor at Justa, isn't as careful. He looks over at Ritchey and asks, "Can I be honest?" Ritchey nods.
"The VA doesn't do shit," Felder says. In three years, he doesn't know of a vet who's gotten a job placement through the agency.
Bobby Collins, 59, is a homeless Vietnam vet who shows up at Justa from time to time. He's been waiting for a benefits check from the VA for eight months. Collins was shot in the throat in Vietnam, and his leg is full of shrapnel. He's got two Purple Hearts, but he didn't claim his medical benefits for years — he didn't need to; he had steady jobs as a welder and a carpenter. Then, last Thanksgiving, he came to Phoenix and couldn't find work, and quickly found himself homeless. Now he needs the money.
The people at the VA are very nice, Collins says, but the bureaucracy is impossible. They've told him he'll get his money. He doesn't understand why it's taking so long.
Collins says he's working hard to not be bitter, but when he arrived in Phoenix and saw what few services there were for him as a veteran, he was mad at John McCain.
"I have a lot of respect for Senator McCain as a war hero," he says, but "I would never vote for a veteran who lets veterans in his state be treated this way."
In the last few minutes of the first presidential debate, on September 26, John McCain made a statement that probably blew past most economy-obsessed Americans but stopped a lot of military veterans short.
Barack Obama had just remarked that he's approached all the time by Iraq War veterans who say they can't get help for post-traumatic stress disorder from the overwhelmed veterans administration, something Obama vows to improve. When it was his turn to reply, McCain seemed incensed that Obama would dare intrude on McCain's turf as, perhaps, America's most famous injured war vet.
"I know the veterans and I know them well," he said, his voice shaky with emotion. "And I know that they know that I'll take care of them. And I've been proud of their support and of their recognition of my service to the veterans. And I love them, and I'll take care of them. And they know that I'll take care of them."
But he hasn't. McCain's had 25 years in Congress to help veterans, yet nearly all he's done is talk about his own experiences as a prisoner of war — and push the country to go to war again.