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Meet 2 Austin veterans working to combat homelessness among their fellow service members

The Ending Community Homelessness Coalition reported that in Austin in early 2021, 9% of people experiencing homelessness were veterans.

AUSTIN, Texas — Homelessness is still an issue in Austin. And sadly, those who serve our country in the military have a higher chance of experiencing homelessness.

The Ending Community Homelessness Coalition (ECHO) reported that in Austin in early 2021, 9% of people experiencing homelessness were veterans, even though veterans only made up 9% of the population. KVUE spoke with two veterans who work to combat veteran homelessness every day by helping their fellow former military members find resources and support.

“I started out doing communications and then I got stationed at Fort Carson, Colorado,” said James Lambert, the peer service coordinator for the Military Veteran Peer Network in Travis County. “I was in an artillery unit and ended up working with the fort observing teams in the artillery unit.”

“I was an infantryman with the Army,” said Blake Holbrook, a peer mental health specialist with the Samaritan Center in Austin. “I spent a year in the DMZ in Korea and a year in Iraq and Baghdad from 2004 to 2005.”

Holbrook is Purple Heart veteran. Five men in his unit get killed overseas, and he knows that service can come with a price. He said he was a quintessential veteran suffering from PTSD upon returning from deployment.

I ended up in three psychiatric wards, mostly because the VA was just giving me a lot of medications. I ended up in a substance abuse rehab for those medications, where they gave me more medications. And really, I would have been a homeless veteran had my family not stepped in.” Holbrook said.

For others, like Lambert, no one stepped in to help him until later on. He had moved to Texas with his friends after their time in the military – but as his friends moved forward with their lives, he hit some roadblocks.

“I struggled a little bit more than they did getting out and couldn't afford the place I was staying in,” Lambert said. “You know, and after a while, I ended up living out of an ’82 Ford Ranger in a Walmart parking lot.”

Lambert lived in that parking lot in Victoria, Texas, for a year. He said he struggled with alcohol and painkillers, which he got hooked on after being treated for back pain. He said he was using sinks in the Walmart and gas stations to get clean and even had some run-ins with law enforcement. 

Lambert said in some moments, he felt stuck and didn’t feel like there was hope.

“My lowest point, I considered suicide because I was like, 'There's no way out. I'm not – I can't. I can't deal with it anymore,'” Lambert said of his experience with homelessness. “You know, I never thought I'd get out of that situation because it just becomes so monotonous. When you apply and try to get into places and you get turned down, you get a negative view of yourself. I never thought I'd be here.

It wasn’t until a friend saw Lambert in the Walmart parking lot that he found a path out of that situation. He said applying for jobs was often difficult because he didn't have an address or phone. But his friend allowed him to use his address for job applications, which eventually led him to a path where he could get back on his feet.

Lambert never told any of his relatives or friends that he was homeless when he was in that situation. His mom didn’t even find out until a few years ago. Lambert doesn’t normally share his story except to help other veterans. He said it was an extremely difficult and humiliating time for him. 

Holbrook said that many veterans choose to not ask for help when they are experiencing homelessness because he said the military trains you not to ask for help.

You know, wearing the uniform, you have so much pride, so much respect for yourself and others that if you lose your home, it's embarrassing. It’s sad,” Holbrook said.

RELATED: Over $50 million in new Housing Stability Grants includes partnership to help veterans experiencing homelessness

Now both Lambert and Holbrook are using their experiences to help others. 

Holbrook is a peer mental health specialist with the Samaritan Center in Austin and works with veterans in the state jail. He said about half of the veterans in his program were homeless before they were arrested. He said substance abuse fueled by trauma and lack of affordable housing are two of the main reasons veterans become homeless.

“A lot of times, we work with the VA and they have the HUD-VASH program in Austin,” Holbrook said. “We can give them a voucher for about three to six months of rent but, as we all know, in Austin, the housing prices – prices are skyrocketing. Just renting apartments is difficult. So, if they have these vouchers, at the end of those vouchers, they can't afford it. They don't have a job that can afford the rent in Austin, and a lot of times they just end up back on the street.”

Lambert is the peer service coordinator for the Military Veteran Peer Network in Travis County. He works with the Austin Police Department and Travis County Sheriff's Office, responding to veteran interactions and meeting one-on-one with veterans to connect them with different resources. 

However, since the camping ban was reinstated earlier this year, both Holbrook and Lambert said some of these veterans have been hard to find.

“When the camping ban came into effect, I lost contact with a lot of the vets that were in the area. I used to be able to go every day and see them. I knew where all the veterans that I was talking to were staying, and then I'd always run into more,” Lambert said.

ECHO's 2021 estimates before the camping ban was reinstated in May showed that, of the 3,160 people experiencing homelessness in Travis County, 284 were veterans. Holbrook said in a city as innovative as Austin, we need to find solutions.

“When you come to the table saying, 'let's reinstate the camping ban and let's get rid of the so-called trash in this town,' well, it turns out that trash are humans and we should act accordingly,” Holbrook said. “So, come to the table with solutions, not just talking about a problem.”

He believes a possible solution or change that could help the situation is more affordable housing options that also have resources to care for the whole person by providing help with mental health and substance abuse. He said to keep people from becoming homeless again, you need to get to the root of the problem.

Holbrook and Lambert both use the good and bad from their pasts to lead fellow veterans to a new chapter of healing.

“You’re struggling right now. That's okay, we all, we all struggle,” Holbrook said. “Where do you go from here? There's a path to be successful. You just got to choose.”

Below is a list of resources for veterans:

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