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Rural homeless vets: Hidden from view and often ignored

Homeless veterans and other homless people live in this encampment near the Saratoga Springs, New York train station.
Homeless veterans and other homless people live in this encampment near the Saratoga Springs, New York train station.
Sarah Harris/American Homefront

There are 4,800 homeless veterans in L.A. County, but not all of them live close to city centers.

Homelessness can look different for veterans living in rural communities. Shelters are few and far between, and people aren't living on the street like they do in cities.

They might be couch surfing, sleeping in their cars, or camping in the woods. And that can make it difficult to identify homeless veterans and connect them to the services they need.

One example of what that looks like is in downtown Ballston Spa, New York.

It's full of charming old Victorian houses. But there's one that's different from its neighbors: the Vet House.

Fourteen formerly homeless veterans live there. It has a comfy frat house vibe. Guitars are propped up in the corners, military flags and posters hang on the walls, the kitchen is overflowing with food.

"It's cozy," said Dave, who moved in a couple weeks ago. "All the guys get along. We all cook, clean, look out for each other."

Dave is a Navy veteran and doesn't want his last name used because of the stigma around homelessness and addiction.

"I started to have a drinking problem when I was in the military," he explained. "About a year ago I got kicked out of my house."

Then he bounced around. He lived at a detox center, a rehab facility, a group home, and for a while, his brother's couch.

"The only thing I had was a vehicle that my ex-roommate had signed for, and I had to get rid of that," Dave said. "I wasn't homeless homeless, but I didn't have a job, didn't have anything else going for me."

Dave's problems were compounded by the fact that he wasn't living near a major city. Transitional housing for veterans is rare in rural areas, leaving most rural homeless veterans with few options.

'The bottom line is that a lot of them at times are couch surfing, and they don't have a permanent place to sleep at night," said Leigha Rosenberger, the Executive Director of the Veteran and Community Housing Coalition, the organization that runs the Vet House.

"A lot times we'll find that the last materialistic item they have is a vehicle, so they'll often be sleeping in those," she said. "Or there are some encampments throughout the community where individuals are staying together in tents."

Those makeshift campsites can be found throughout the rural parts of upstate New York. They're hidden in plain sight: behind the grocery store, near the train station. You have to look closely to spot the tarps and mattresses through the bare trees.

Some of the campsites are piled with stuff -- hats, bottles, a bicycle.

Those types of living situations make it hard to know just how many rural homeless vets are out there.

"Because it's such a challenge to count people in rural areas, and services are so spread out, I don't know that the numbers that are even out there for rural veterans are accurate," said Kathryn Monet, the Executive Director of the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans.

Monet said low-income rural veterans often face more obstacles than their more urban counterparts. Affordable housing may be hard to find in small communities, getting to VA clinics can require a long trip, and jobs may be more scarce.

That means, for many veterans, homelessness could be just one step away.

Army Reservist Stephanie Maxwell, who works with the Veteran and Community Housing Coalition, has seen that many times with the former service members she encounters. And she had a taste of homelessness herself when she moved back to upstate New York a couple years ago.  She had trouble finding an apartment she could afford, and she ended up couch surfing with her two kids.

"I started to realize, 'Wait, this is my life! I don't have a home, I don't have a house,'" Maxwell recalled. "I get how easy it could have been for me to have been on the street."

Ultimately, Maxwell got out of that cycle of couch surfing. She's found an apartment and steady work.

Her advice to rural veterans who are facing homelessness: Find an organization in your community. It might be a social service agency or church. Then pick up the phone. And don't be afraid to ask for help.