SAN ANTONIO -- Even off the battlefield, Luke Leppla is still finding a lot of wounded soldiers.
Every year, he and a team of volunteers scour the most tattered corners of San Antonio. They carry their clipboards and food supplies through just about every greenbelt inside Loop 1604, hitting store parking lots and city parks along the way.
What they find is exactly what hooked Leppla into a life of social work.
"My heart was broken by the number of my brothers in arms," he said. "... Once a service member, always a service member."
Nearly a quarter (22.6 percent) of the homeless in San Antonio who were counted as the head of their household are veterans. That’s according to the 2012 Point in Time Count and Survey, an annual headcount of the city’s homeless. Social workers agree that it's a tragic figure for Military City U.S.A .
Although it's hard to account for every homeless person in the country's seventh-largest city, the annual head count does provide an accurate breakdown of who is homeless -- and why.
Too many reasons
"Another unemployed vet. That's normal," said a veteran while waiting in line on his motorized scooter outside the G.I. Forum on North Flores Street. Wearing a Tim Duncan T-shirt and a facetious smirk, he spoke loudly so everyone could hear him and solemnly nod their heads.
He was one of 400 homeless veterans who showed up for the annual Stand Down event. It's held each year in the days before Veterans Day. The vets line up to receive warm clothes for the coming winter, plus job information, haircuts, AIDS screenings, a warm meal and other services.
Juan Pizano, in his 50s, was leaning heavily on the man’s motorized scooter. On his left forearm was a faded anchor tattoo. Above it were the words “We Are The.”
"I'm 100 percent disabled." he said.
Life after the Navy hasn't been easy for Pizano. Since completing duty in the Philippines in the 1980s, Pizano has found himself divorced, arrested for three DWIs, imprisoned, in and out of numerous jobs and bent over from a bulging disc and an inguinal hernia.
No longer able to work construction, Pizano is unemployed -- and has been for a while. He left Houston for San Antonio nearly five years ago, but not because he thought he could find a job. He left because a friend told him about all the services San Antonio has for veterans.
In San Antonio, he found plenty of help.
Culture of sacrifice
"Help," Leppla explained, "is one of the oldest cries on the battlefield."
Originally from Wapakoneta, Ohio -- the proud birthplace of Neil Armstrong -- Leppla stayed briefly in San Antonio during his medic training and fell in love with Texas while stationed at Fort Hood. He moved to San Antonio immediately after his Army service ended in 2003, and enrolled at UTSA.
But student life felt empty, Leppla said. It lacked the camaraderie and service he had experienced in Iraq. He wanted to do more. He wanted to reach out and help somebody.
That same year, he began volunteering with the homeless at the San Antonio AIDS Foundation, and found that he was still helping his fellow military men and women.
"Now, they're not so much calling out medic, but they're crying out 'help,'" he said. "It's just that instinctive nature that I was trained to sacrifice yourself to help out someone who needs aid."
Now a volunteer coordinator with faith-based SAMMinistries, Leppla helps homeless families get the care they need. He dishes out high-fives to children living at the Transitional Living and Learning Center (TLLC) on Blanco Road. When a child is obviously upset, he asked them what's wrong and is quick to lift their spirits by handing out chocolates.
Whether it's serving meals, passing out warm socks at homeless encampments or just being a friend, Leppla and his volunteers fight to provide a lifeline for the city's homeless. Often times, the people Leppla helps look a lot like himself -- at least on paper.
The latest Point in Time survey shows the average homeless person in San Antonio is a 34-year-old white male -- just two years older than Leppla. Veterans as young as 23 and as old as 81 were found living on the street. And of those homeless veterans, the study shows nearly half have been left wounded by lost jobs while the rest list substance abuse (15.1 percent), family issues (14.8 percent) and mental illnesses (13.5 percent) as the leading contributor to their homelessness.
Healing those wounds isn't easy. But it's people like Leppla, who can't pretend that they don't see another American suffering in the street, who make finding a warm bed and a meal a little easier.
Getting back up
One year ago, Kendel Balusek-Scaffe didn't have a home. Even worse, she was diagnosed with cervical cancer.
She talks loudly, almost like a drill sergeant, but chooses her words more carefully. Wearing a red "U.S. Marine Corps Veteran" hat, it's easy to tell that Balusek-Scaffe is a proud veteran -- even before she announces, “Once a Marine, always a Marine.”
At the Stand Down event, the 56-year-old was excited to snag a roll of toilet paper, which she said is a very "hot commodity." She stuffed it inside her brand new tote bag.
She's also proud to say that she's cancer-free.
She received treatment for her cancer through the South Texas Veterans Health Care System. She was also able to secure a Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing (VASH) voucher, which enabled her to move into an apartment on Vance Jackson.
"Now we've got the opportunity to get back on our feet," she said. "We're up to our knees right now, but we're getting one foot under us and we're getting up there."
Balusek-Scaffe said it had a lot to do with being in the right place at the right time, and she might be right.
All of the nearly 400 VASH vouchers allotted to San Antonio-area housing authorities have already been awarded. Nearly 200 more veterans are on the waiting list. All of the 80 beds at the G.I. Forum’s Residential Center for Veterans are occupied.
Jerry Rengal, a social worker for the VA’s Health Care for Homeless Veterans, explained that homelessness has a new face. Even those who have jobs can find themselves living at a bus stop in the Medical Center, he said. What San Antonio needs is more affordable permanent housing.
Finding a place
Leppla agrees. He said they have seen an increase in the number of families seeking services at the Transitional Living and Learning Center. And military families, he said, are no exception.
Pizano is now living with his wife and 5-year-old boy in an apartment near the VA Hospital in the Medical Center. He wouldn’t be there without his VASH voucher. Before he had the voucher, he and his family had lived for two years at SAMMinistries.
Things are really looking up for Pizano. His wife has found work at a local church. He said he has even turned his life over to Christ. Despite the more than rocky road to get to where he is today, Pizano said he’s fortunate.
“Some people are fortunate to have somebody who won’t give up on you,” he said. “But some people don’t have that. They don’t have someone that won’t give up on them.”
For Pizano, it was his mother and also social workers like Leppla, who care deeply about their fellow veterans. For Balusek-Scaffe, it was social workers who helped her find the resources available to her through Veterans Affairs.
And while veterans and social workers alike agree that there’s still a huge demand for affordable housing, services for women vets and employers who will hire veterans, one thing is for sure: Whether they know it or not, all vets have somebody who won’t give up on them.
They have each other.
Be part of the solution. Visit the following websites for information on how to make a donation or volunteer at SAMMinistries, American GI Forum, Haven for Hope and the South Texas Veterans Health Care System.