Photo Credit: Derek Hawkins
Veterans dodge gaps in services and shrinking job market as they navigate their way back to civilian life.
By Derek Hawkins
Andre Tatum-Jones called it a “rapid descent.”
In spring 2013, after an 11-month tour in Afghanistan’s volatile Khost Province with the Army’s 1st Cavalry Division, Tatum-Jones returned to D.C., his hometown, and found his network of friends and family falling apart.
First, he moved in with a girlfriend in Suitland, Maryland. The woman’s father, a building superintendent, steered odd jobs in his direction, such as painting houses and moving furniture. But within weeks, Tatum-Jones said, the relationship had soured and work dried up. He said he had to leave.
Then he turned to his older sister, who let him stay in her house in the District. But she ran into financial troubles of her own, and Tatum-Jones took off after just a couple weeks there.
That was the end of the line. With no other friends or family to turn to — his mother died in 2005, his step-father several years later — Tatum-Jones said he was forced onto the streets.
“Extreme anger,” said Tatum-Jones, reflecting on his first nights without housing in an interview Wednesday. “I had just served this country for 11 months, and now I’m sleeping on a park bench.”
He was barely 23 at the time, and he’d been home for only about two months.
Trauma in war, stress in the states
Now 25, Tatum-Jones is trying to get his life back on track. He’s one of the youngest — possibly the youngest — person living in a transitional home run by the Washington branch of the U.S. Veterans Initiative, staff said.
The organization, also called U.S. VETS, is the largest nonprofit in the country that provides services for homeless veterans. Its facility in the District opened in February 2015 and houses up to 85 veterans at a time.
Tatum-Jones has been there since April, sharing an apartment-style room with several other veterans. He gets three meals a day, health screening and career counseling from U.S. VETS staffers.
The past few months have been positive, Tatum-Jones said, but it’s coming off a year with “lots of low points.”
Tatum-Jones was an E-4 specialist in the Army — a junior rank for enlisted soldiers — and he focused mainly on communications, operating military radios. He joined the military in 2009 and shipped out to Afghanistan in 2011.
Tatum-Jones said combat was worlds more stressful than he’d expected it would be.
“No man should live in constant fear of his life, 24/7,” he said, adding that two of his best friends died in action while he was deployed. “When that happens, you refrain from making strong friendships.”
When he returned home in 2013, Tatum-Jones was honorably discharged and he began to search for work.
Again, the reality on the ground defied expectations.
It was hard enough to adjust to civil life, Tatum-Jones said, but finding employment was even tougher. He said he looked for work through the Army Career and Alumni Program, but came up empty-handed.
“I’m not saying I’m entitled to anything,” he said. “But I thought it was going to be simpler. I expected to get job offers. I was living in a fantasy.”
Finding control, normalcy
After bouncing between houses and striking out on job prospects, Tatum-Jones said he wound up homeless. He said he spent about half a year sleeping outside in public places around the District, overcome by feelings that the military had abandoned him.
But after a while, Tatum-Jones said, he knew he had to take action to change his situation.
“Being angry at the military wasn’t going to help me,” he said.
Tatum-Jones checked himself into 801 East Men’s Shelter in Southeast D.C., where he lived for nine months.
He said he was grateful to have a roof over his head and a free meal every day, but felt listless. The shelter didn’t offer counseling services and made its guests check out daily from 6 a.m. until the evening.
“They had nothing you could do between hours,” he said. “Who wants to sit outside and twiddle their thumbs all day?”
When the U.S. VETS transitional home opened in February less than two miles away, a friend told Tatum-Jones to check it out.
He said it only took one visit to know that’s where he should be.
“Honestly, the moment I got into the room and saw a bed that wasn’t a bunk bed, that was it,” he said. “That, and knowing I wouldn’t be put out most of the day.”
New, young face of veterans in flux
Tatum-Jones is a baby among the 64 veterans currently living in the transitional home, most of whom are in their 40s and 50s, according to Clifton Lewis, executive director of the U.S. VETS Washington office.
But Lewis said they’re seeing more and more 20- and 30-somethings as the United States’ wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have wound down.
“We’re adapting. We’re constantly reevaluating best practices,” Lewis said. “As the needs have changed, we’ve changed.”
Finding veterans steady work is a top priority, Lewis said, but it’s become increasingly challenging in D.C., where the federal government has scaled back its hiring.
One way the organization has adjusted its approach is to focus on teaching civil employers how to look for useful traits in veterans like Tatum-Jones.
“A lot of veterans come home and don’t know how to translate their skills,” Lewis said. “We train employers to see that they’re focused, that they’re dedicated to the mission.”
Tatum-Jones might still have an uphill battle, but he said “everything’s looking up” compared to where he was last year. He said he’s been paired with a new counselor who “lit a fire underneath me.” He’s currently waiting to hear back from two jobs he applied for at security companies in the District.
Tatum-Jones said his goals, for now, are simple. Find steady employment. Move into an apartment on his own. Buy a car — ”it doesn’t have to be crazy, just a point-A to point-B car.”
He said he’s also looking forward to delving back into his personal passion: animation. A huge fan of Japanese manga such as Naruto, Tatum-Jones said he has pads filled with ink and pencil drawings he’s done.
“Don’t get it misconstrued,” he said. “Everybody’s one paycheck away from homelessness.”