Why I Fight For Homeless Veterans In Puerto Rico: Peter’s Story
Last Updated: 27 Dec 2022
Veterans Support & Mental Health Careecho $minutes. " Minute Read"?>
Meet the Endeavors employee who beat Veteran homelessness and is now helping others do the same.
When seventeen-year-old Peter enlisted in the U.S. Army, he did so at the behest of his uncle, who worked at a recruiting station in Puerto Rico. His uncle was concerned about Peter’s use of drugs as a teenager and encouraged Peter to enlist as a way out of his current situation.
Peter initially thought he would serve only two years, but when the Vietnam War began, he deployed with the 73rd Airborne division attached. His commander saw a lot of potential in Peter and recommended him for airborne school. During the El Salvadoran Civil War, Peter found himself, like many service members on the ground, shooting and fatally wounding the enemy only to later discover that the “enemy” often consisted of child soldiers.
“I used to call my grandmother through the satellite from the jungle,” he remembers. “I would ask her to pray. Because it was so hard. So hard.”
The mark left on Peter by those experiences would last a lifetime.
The Invisible Wounds of Military Service
Peter served as a paratrooper in the army for 17 years. As the years added up, so did the toll of his service. His mental health shattered.
When Peter started self-medicating with hard drugs, he was discharged from the military and sentenced to serve time at the military correctional facility at Leavenworth. This was before our modern approach to mental health, when our society criminalized mental health and substance abuse rather than treat either as the disorders they are.
After another 17 years, Peter was released from prison early in recognition of his behavior, but he had no resources or support outside of the prison walls—no one to turn to, no place to call “home.” He found himself on the streets of New York, where he spent his days fighting rats over hamburger scraps in White Castle dumpsters, his nights sleeping under whatever shelter he could find.
“I lived in Cardboard City,” he says. “I took maybe one or two showers in three years.” He remembers getting on a train and the entire car clearing out because of how badly he smelled.
He had never felt so alone.
Peter was enrolled in the VA’s methadone program to help with his substance abuse, and he found several local nonprofits in the city that provided hot meals and healthcare. But Peter’s struggles persisted. It seemed that no matter where he went, no matter how hard he tried, Peter was trapped in the cycle of hardship, mental health issues, and homelessness. Eventually, he was arrested and sentenced to 12 years in the New York State Penitentiary.
Building a Life of Dignity and Service
The New York State Penitentiary had a vocational training and college program, and Peter took advantage of every opportunity. That’s how Peter learned about working as a Peer Specialist, and saw the impact that peer support can have on people fighting substance abuse disorders and homelessness.
When he was released from prison, Peter moved to Boston, got a job as a painter, and rented a place to live. “I started going to Alcoholics Anonymous 3 and 4 times a day and the more meetings I made, the more I wanted to be a Peer Specialist,” he says. Who better to mentor other Veterans overcoming addiction and homelessness than a fellow Veteran who lived with and overcame those very challenges?
The day he became a Peer Specialist for the VA’s My Healthy Vet program changed his life. Peter fell in love with helping others, and he began sharing his story at prisons, eventually serving as a mentor for Veterans leaving prison.
By sharing his story, he built trust within the community and grew a network of employers, public officials, and advocates that he could call upon to help other Veterans.
When Peter decided to move back to his family’s hometown in Puerto Rico, he discovered that Endeavors was doing similar work in San Juan and surrounding municipalities. Here was a chance not only to help his fellow Veterans, but to help his fellow Puerto Rican Veterans(who make up 17% of the population living below the poverty level on the island). Stigmas against mental health and Veteran homelessness are significant in Puerto Rico, and access to comprehensive recovery resources is scarce.
Peter knew he could make a difference in Puerto Rico, so he joined the Endeavors team as a Case Manager in the Homeless Veterans Reintegration Program (HVRP), which seeks to restore the dignity of unhoused Veterans in Puerto Rico through rapid re-housing and job placement.
“I already felt loved by all of them,” Peter says of his first months working with Endeavors and developing customized recovery plans for his Veteran clients. “This is a beautiful family here.”
Ending the Cycle of Homelessness for Puerto Rican Veterans
So, what does Peter’s work look like on a day-to-day basis?
He often starts his day over a plate of breakfast with a client instead of in the office. “I’ll meet them wherever they need to meet,” he says of his Veteran clients.
In addition to developing comprehensive recovery plans that address their career goals, job training, resume building, permanent housing, and mental health care, Peter provides peer support to Veterans of all ages. Some days Peter is at his desk making phone calls to secure housing and job interviews for Veterans. Other days, he’s in the field, doing outreach at shelters and hospitals, spreading the word through the community that help is available for Veterans in need.
He has been in their shoes in more ways than one. That makes him uniquely qualified to empathize, listen, and support.
“I’m not going to leave anyone in the street,” he says adamantly. “I have people and resources to help them get food, a place to live, a job. If they want to go to school, I’ll help them get there. If they are doing drugs, I know what it’s like to detox. I’ll get them there.”
About Endeavors’ Homeless Veteran Reintegration Program (HVRP)
A service organization based in San Juan, Endeavors Puerto Rico is a branch of Endeavors, a national organization serving people in need since 1969. Endeavors seeks to restore the dignity of unhoused Veterans in Puerto Rico through rapid re-housing and job placement. Our Case Managers connect qualifying Veterans with long-term competitive employment and permanent housing to help beat the cycle of homelessness. Our one-on-one Case Management services include:
- Housing Assistance
- Career Counseling
- Resume Building
- Job Placement
- On-the-job Training
- Supportive Services
- Skills and Parenting Workshops
- Mental Health Resources
- Behavioral Health Services
- Peer Support
To learn more about HVRP, inquire about services, or become an Employment Partner, visit endeavors.org/hvrp-es.
Endeavors is a longstanding national non-profit that provides an array of programs and services in support of children, families, Veterans, and those struggling with mental illness and other disabilities. Endeavors serves vulnerable people in crisis through innovative personalized services. For more information, please visit www.endeavors.org.