SACRAMENTO (CBS13) — You’ve seen homeless vets carrying signs needing money or food, but how did they get there?
We first met Keith Bell a year ago. His dad just died. He could no longer pay the bills, and his stress was mounting. He was fearful he’d end up on the streets.
The worry is painted all over his face.
“I would hate to think I’d lose this house,” said Bell.
The flag on Bell’s porch waves behind the Navy veteran, but the 60-year-old says the country he served is not standing behind him.
“I mean it’s heartbreaking what the VA does to people,” said Bell.
He was injured on a Navy ship stateside during the Vietnam War.
He says debilitating elbow and back pain forced him to stop driving a truck in 2008 and start collecting his VA pension, $1,054 a month.
Now that is slashed to $271 a month.
The Veterans Administration says he has to pay back $37,000 because of state unemployment he collected for 99 weeks, which should have offset his pension.
Bell says he did not know he had to report that income, but he knows he cannot live on $271 a month.
“How much are the other veterans living on, living in tents?” said Bell.
He’s afraid he’ll end up the same way.
Ten months later, Bell is living in a Placer County campground, cooking on a portable gas stove and living out of a tent with his dog, Rebel.
Kurtis Ming: “What’s happened since the last time we saw you?”
Keith Bell: “Well, with the money, I’m getting from the VA, it’s been really bad.”
Noticeably thinner, Bell longs for the days he once took for granted, when he had running water and a roof over his head.
Keith Bell: “It’s not just losing the house; it’s losing your place.”
Kurtis Ming: “What do you mean by that?”
Keith Bell: “We have no place, we’re here, we’re there.” “We’re there.”
While Bell feels the VA turned its back on him, he admits ignoring letters they sent him about unreported income, saying he didn’t understand them, and he missed his chance to appeal.
Bell says that alcohol abuse had a part to play during what he describes as a dark time with sick family members.
Bell: “Everybody was dying around me.”
Ming: “Alcohol was your comfort?”
Bell: “Yeah, from the pain.”
Ming: “It numbed the pain?”
Bell: “Physical pain, mental pain.”
He says he’s since given up hard alcohol, but this is now his life, being homeless.
Ming: “What do you think your future is like?”
Bell: “It’s dim.”
That is the feeling for tens of thousands of veterans across the country who somehow found their way on the streets.
Now with the leaves falling and temperatures plunging.
We wanted to know what if anything could be done to help Bell get back on his feet.
“I don’t want to be a burden on anybody,” he said.
We made some calls and ended up in touch with Kevin Jones at Volunteers of America Veterans Services; Jones jumped into action.
“I can’t see anyone living on that kind of money,” said Jones.
Jones found Bell transitional housing, a roof over his head and a warm bed in a shared room.
“Here’s where we’re going to be Reb(al),” said Bell addressing his dog.
The transitional housing is to buy time for Bell to work out a new repayment plan with the VA, so he can afford to live.
Volunteers of American is also helping Bell find a job and offers addiction services if he needs it.
“I hope the veteran or the person homeless, can stay under that roof or transition to another roof and never be homeless again,” said Jones.
Three weeks later, Volunteers of America found Bell his own place.
An 84-square foot home in a backyard with subsidized rent he can afford. It’s part of the new tiny home program aimed at helping homeless veterans.
“You have no idea how grateful I am,” said Bell.
Once ready to give up, Bell now has a place, a path, and hope.
He proudly displays the American flag on his porch once again.
“It’s almost at the end of the tunnel where the light is,” “I don’t know how to repay everyone,” he said.
We hear from so many veterans that struggle to get help from the VA. If they do, it’s years later. For the unfortunate, the answers come after they have died.
Volunteers of America, Rep. Doug LaMalfa, and the Veterans Service Officer in Placer County have all pledged to advocate on behalf of Bell for an extended repayment plan or to even get some of that debt forgiven.
Bell says he’s in the process of getting a job.
Click here to find programs out there to help veterans.