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How Do You Get a Homeless Vet off The Streets?

Richard Gierman and Harley. Photos by R.V. Scheide

Richard Gierman knows what it’s like to fall between the cracks. Like millions of Americans, the 57-year-old Army veteran and construction engineer found himself out of work after the onset of the Great Recession in 2007. The oldest of six siblings raised in Southern California’s outlaw biking milieu, Gierman’s hard-working, hard-partying lifestyle inevitably caught up with him, and the next thing the father of eight knew, he was couch-surfing in San Bernardino, homeless and alone.

“My family was shattered, but it’s coming back together now,” he explained last week at the Redding Veteran’s Resource Center, where he volunteers to help bring homeless veterans in off the streets. Via the Supportive Services for Veterans and Families program, Redding VRC has housed 360 homeless veterans (and 180 dependents) since it opened three years ago, including Gierman, who relocated to the Redding area in 2014.

Gierman’s spouse of 30 years has joined him in the small apartment they share in Anderson and he’s mending relationships with their five children and nine grandchildren. Two more grandchildren are on the way and he’s excited about getting to see them grow up.

“The whole mountain of life!” the barrel-chested biker boomed in a raspy baritone. “I’m gonna get the rewards. God is taking care of it for me.”

The Redding Veterans Resource Center got Richard Gierman off the street.

Make that God and the VRC. The Redding VRC is located nearby and closely affiliated with the Veteran’s Administration Clinic on Hartnell Avenue, which provides outpatient healthcare services to eligible veterans such as Gierman and, full disclosure, myself.

Redding VRC director Brad Long says that many veterans are unaware that they’re entitled to substantial health and welfare benefits for their service, especially if they’ve fallen on hard economic times.

“I qualified for the program,” Gierman said. “It was a different avenue for getting off the street.”

Redding VRC is one of 15 centers maintained in California, Nevada and Arizona by VRC of America. It currently maintains 160 beds of transitional housing where veterans and their dependents can stay for up to two years. In addition to standard housing, the Redding VRC also features a 12-bed sober living facility. The VRC will break ground on a long-awaited 31-unit affordable apartment complex for veterans in Shasta Lake later this fall.

Using data from the most recent point-in-time homeless survey conducted by the Shasta County Homeless Continuum of Care Council, Long estimated that currently there may be as many as 400 homeless veterans in the county, along with an unknown number of dependents.

“We concentrate on the one person, the veteran, but he or she can be the head of a household or the primary breadwinner, and there can be so many other people effected,” Long said. He works closely with local government agencies and charitable organizations to ensure that when homeless veterans are identified, they are referred to Redding VRC.

Including Long, the center has four full-time staff members and five volunteers who answer telephones and do minor office work at the center. There are also “friends of the Redding VRC,” concerned citizens who keep their eyes open for veterans in need and refer them to the center. Then there are veterans like Gierman who’ve managed to get off the street with the VRC’s help and show their gratitude by volunteering to help their fellow veterans who are still out there.

“Richard started off as a client,” Long said. Once Gierman and his wife were settled, he began popping into the center daily to offer help. He gave veterans rides to medical appointments and grocery stores. He helped facilitate interviews with prospective landlords. He talked to veterans who were down. “He needed to hang out with veterans.”

Gierman served as a UN Peacekeeper in the South Korean DMZ from 1976-79. Even though he was honorably discharged in 1979 and later diagnosed with service-connected hearing loss, he never received a single disability payment until the Redding VA clinic business office discovered the error in his record last year.

The back disability pay came in handy for making the rent, furnishing their apartment in Anderson and keeping the truck and the Harley running. The hog remains a central feature of his lifestyle, but these days Gierman sports new colors as a member of the Shasta County chapter of Back From Hell, a clean-and-sober motorcycle club formed about 10 years ago in part to raise awareness about the homeless veterans issue.

The Shasta County Back From Hell MC supports veterans causes.

“The reason I joined is they keep me in line,” he said gruffly. “We’re about making the man, not breaking the man.”

To be sure, many of the veterans on the streets of Redding are already broken men. As a volunteer, about the most Gierman can do is inform homeless veterans that help is available. Whether or not they accept the help is another matter.

“Veterans can be very butt-headed,” he said. “I try to calm them down.”

From his own experience as a homeless vet struggling with substance abuse, Gierman understands not every one wants to be helped. He’s known people who will take a strike on a drug felony rather than go to a drug diversion program. If getting off the streets means sobering up, forget about it.

“They don’t have any hope left,” he said. “That’s why drugs and alcohol remain attractive. People want to get high, but when you get high, you’re gonna miss everything below.”

Nevertheless, he’s determined to keep helping.

“My next goal is to go down in these little campsites,” he said. “Some of these guys could care less. Some vets just don’t like the system. They need to have more programs for these guys because some of of them are in sad shape. It’s not so much the physical issues, it’s the mental. Maybe from drugs and alcohol, maybe from a bad relationship.”

Some cases, Gierman’s included, appear to be helped by divine intervention.

“The godsend for me was this: am I failing or is God helping me out?” he said, adding that by God he meant Jesus Christ. “Do I want to be a drug addict or do I want to be a contributing member of society? The eye-opener was that I had to take responsibility for my own actions.”

As an infantryman serving in South Korea, Gierman expected to be treated like an animal. Some four decades later, seeing homeless veterans in the street being treated like animals instead of free men infuriates him.

“With my vet stuff I get very animated,” he said. “’You need to calm down,’ people try to tell me. No, everybody needs to wake the hell up. It should be every one’s goal keeping veterans off the street. I really wish people would open up their eyes and see what we can do to help the vets here in Redding, California.”

How You Can Help

Newscafe.com readers may remember Jennifer Ruhberg from a story I wrote about finding her late husband Bob Ruhberg’s cowboy hat. Bob was a Vietnam Vet who succumbed to lung disease caused by Agent Orange. Since his passing, Jennifer has been volunteering at Redding VRC where she has started “Bob’s Bags,” which collects donated household items such as shampoo, shaving cream, razors, deodorant, soap, toothbrushes, toothpaste, socks, shirts, underwear, pants, sweats, shoes, nonperishable food items and cash.

While the Redding VRC operates on an annual grant and occasional donations to assist veterans in finding housing, the majority of those funds go directly to security deposits and rent for initial move-in costs. Bob’s Bags helps newly housed veterans by providing them with basic staples they otherwise cannot afford. Donations are accepted year-round. To donate or for more information, call Jennifer Ruhberg 530-474-6090.

Golfing For Veterans

The Nick Dahl 2016 Memorial Golf Tournament will be held at Churn Creek Golf Course Oct. 15 at 1 p.m. All proceeds go to sponsor housing for the Redding VRC. Entry fee is $40 per golfer and includes 9 holes of golf and barbecue dinner. To register or for more information, contact Pam Dahl at 530-227-7808.