If U.S. Navy veteran Michael Ermish doesn’t find at least $480 this week, he, his wife and their dog will be evicted from the west Mesa trailer he bought this summer. Ermish, 54, is one of many East Valley veterans facing homelessness.
The National Alliance to End Homelessness estimates 4,000 veterans statewide have no homes.
On Monday, Gov. Janet Napolitano promised to protect programs for homeless veterans from state budget cuts. By Friday, Ermish and his wife of 30 years may be in one of the shelters Napolitano hopes to protect.
Like other veterans, Ermish’s housing problems aren’t related to his service. His 14 years with the Navy ended in 1988, when he was discharged after developing a gambling addiction at a naval base in northern Japan. Back in the United States, he worked as an electrician until 2003 when he suffered his first heart attack. A second heart attack led him to work as a telephone customer service representative, but he recently took leave from that position because of chest and esophagus pains and fainting spells.
The governor addressed former service members on Veterans Day as both her office and state lawmakers are trying to determine how to make mid-year corrections in the state budget. The state Veteran Home was shaken up earlier this year when it was revealed the residents had received substandard care due to understaffing.
Ermish has filed for disability, but must wait six months for that claim to be processed. His doctor says in the meantime he can’t work. Ermish’s family can’t support him financially. He looks to the state to pay his medical bills and he and his wife subsist on food stamps, he said.
“What about rent and utilities?” Ermish asked.
Ermish reached out to local charities, churches and the government, but no help offered the immediate assistance he needed.
“There’s no help anywhere,” he said. “Why isn’t there some kind of federal funding to take up those six months while you wait to see whether you’ll be approved for disability or Social Security?”
Although veterans’ programs can’t keep Ermish from becoming homeless, they help other veterans who already are. Transitional living centers pepper the Valley, helping veterans who have fallen on hard times.
Michael Blair, 49, is staying for four months at the East Valley Men’s Center, 2345 N. Country Club Drive, in Mesa. He served in the Air National Guard and the U.S. Air Force for 10 years before being dishonorably discharged in 1987 for leaving without permission. He said he learned in 2000 that his decision-making problems were linked to low blood sugar, or reverse diabetes, which gives him “tunnel vision.” Now, he watches what he eats and makes better decisions, but the nature of his discharge has kept him from working for the government or for companies holding government contracts.
Since 1987, he’s traveled from California to Las Vegas selling magazine subscriptions and has stayed in transitional living facilities from El Paso, Texas, to Mesa.
“I guess I got some kind of wanderlust or something,” Blair said.
Blair called the East Valley Men’s Center “very unique,” because it encourages its residents to save their money. It’s free, and services include food, hot water, shelter, bicycles for transportation and entertainment, he said.
Samuel Love, 53, also resides at the East Valley Men’s Center while he saves money for a home. The electrician left the Navy in 1986 after 12 years’ service because of drug-related problems. A former petty officer first class, he received an other-than-honorable discharge, he said.
Love described eking out a living in menial jobs. He worked as a salesman and in construction. He said he finally has a job he likes, working in a Mesa distribution center. Love admitted that he struggled to adjust to civilian life.
“I didn’t fit in,” he said. “I liked the Navy so much.”
Help for homeless vets
Resources for Homeless Veterans
• Veterans Affairs Hospital — Homeless Veterans Program
(602) 277-5551, Ext. 7640 or www.phoenix.va.gov
• U.S. Vets
(602) 305-8585 or www.usvetsinc.org