Providing a home to those who served

Ninety-nine. That’s how many homeless veterans were found during January’s Point in Time count in Snohomish County.

In the months since the count, that number has dwindled, thanks to an effort called “Housing the ninety-nine.” It’s a goal that grew from a partnership between the county, nonprofit and social service agencies.

It’s hard to look at a number and see a person behind it — until you meet one.

Meet Brian Matthews.

He is 59. He served in the U.S. Air Force from 1972 until 1976, mostly in Thailand toward the end of the Vietnam War.

For the past year, he and his wife, Bertha, lived in a car that no longer runs. They spent nights sleeping at an I-5 rest area. Long days were spent in the parking lot of a south Everett store, parked out of the way near a fence.

At times, two grown sons stayed with them. Eric Matthews, 29, was in the Marine Corps and served in Afghanistan in 2009. He left the military eligible for 80 percent disability compensation. He now lives on Vashon Island. Another son, 23, was sometimes with them in a truck. They had their dog, too. Dexter is a miniature pinscher.

They had been homeless before, about 10 years ago, and stayed in a motel and a van. This time, job losses for both Brian and Bertha Matthews were followed by an eviction from a house in south Everett. He had been a security guard. His wife lost her phone-company job years ago.

“I had given up,” Matthews said Thursday. “When we first went homeless, we went to every agency. Either they had funding cut or were only helping families with little kids. Not getting any help, I quit looking.”

They also refused to split up, which ruled out shelters that house men and women separately.

The couple now have a real roof over their heads. Brian Matthews spoke Thursday not in a parking lot, but in their new apartment near Mariner High School.

Last week, they moved into the two-bedroom unit at Center House, a complex run by the Housing Authority of Snohomish County. They are being helped by a HUD-Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing voucher, which provides rental assistance to veterans.

While homeless, Matthews never stood on a corner with a sign asking for help. But he did have a sign taped to his car. All it said was “Homeless veteran. You’re welcome.”

Once, when their son took them out to breakfast, someone saw the sign and suggested that Matthews get his military records and seek help.

With his discharge papers somewhere in storage, Matthews met with Jerry Gadek, a veterans service officer with Snohomish County Human Services. Gadek helped get copies of his records and start the process of getting a rent voucher. It’s one of many success stories that have come from “Housing the ninety-nine.”

Gadek said Wednesday that after the Point in Time count, when 99 veterans were identified as homeless, “we needed to do something with this number.”

A new Veterans Homelessness Committee brought together the county and nonprofit and social service agencies. They symbolically decided to help at least 99 veterans.

“We made a commitment to two things: Increase our outreach to every nook and cranny of Snohomish County to find 99 homeless veterans. The second part was to make existing resource programs — veterans or otherwise — easier to access for these folks,” Gadek said.

By Aug. 31, 72 veteran households had secured permanent housing due to efforts by the partnership between the county and nonprofit agencies, according to a statement Thursday from Snohomish County Executive John Lovick’s office.

“I was the 69th veteran on the list,” Matthews said Thursday.

Gadek said when he first met Matthews “he was in a homeless coma, resigned to the fact that nothing is going to change. It’s when that hope light starts to go out.”

Matthews said he has suffered from depression since the 1970s, when he was at the Udon Thani military base in Thailand with the Air Force 14th Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron. He ran backup generators, did photo interpretation and worked on the flight line catching aircraft.

“I saw a few pilots who weren’t in good shape,” Matthews said. “I believed in what I did, and I would do it again for the country.”

Today, because of a knee injury and other health problems, he receives Social Security disability income. They live on less than $1,000 a month, and about $40 a month in food stamps.

Matthews hopes to find another job in security work. If their income rises significantly, the voucher will go to another veteran.

With their car broken down, Chris Horner of the Housing Authority of Snohomish County drove them to look at apartments. The Center House unit opened up when another prospective tenant didn’t take it. “It was like a miracle, as far as I’m concerned,” Brian Matthews said.

Now, they are getting settled. In the apartment Thursday was a big pile of folded blankets — bedding when a car was home.

“We did not want to sit through another winter in a car,” Bertha Matthews said.

Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460; jmuhlstein@heraldnet.com.

Help for veterans

For information about housing and services for veterans in Snohomish County, go to:

http://snohomish.wa.networkofcare.org/veterans/content.aspx?cid=795

Or contact Jerry Gadek, 425-388-7367 or email: Gerard.Gadek@snoco.org

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