George Arthur sits in his new studio apartment in San Francisco, after spending 25 years living in shelters and on the streets. Alexander Cwalinski/KQED
George Arthur sits in his new studio apartment in San Francisco, after spending 25 years living in shelters and on the streets. (Alexander Cwalinski/KQED)

How One Veteran Got Housing After 25 Years of Homelessness

How One Veteran Got Housing After 25 Years of Homelessness

Save ArticleSave Article

Failed to save article

Please try again

The thick surgical scars running up and down George Arthur’s arms, chest and neck tell a story of pain, tragedy and incredible survival.

"I am programmed to survive," George tells me in one of the many conversations we’ve had over the past four years.

George learned some of his survival skills during a brief stint in the military. But his real test has been on the streets. For the past 25 years or so he’s lived in flophouses, shelters, parks, sometimes on the sidewalk. He's survived drug overdoses, brutal fights and a dramatic suicide attempt that's claimed the lives of more than 1,500 other people: a leap from the Golden Gate Bridge.

At one time, military veterans like George made up as much as half the homeless population in some American cities. But in recent years there’s been surprising progress and the number of vets living in shelters and on the streets has dropped by as much as 50 percent. Are there clues here for solving our broader homeless crisis? Maybe. But one thing is clear to me. The push to help vets is radically changing the lives of people like George Arthur.

Sponsored

I met George for the first time four years ago, not on the streets but behind bars. I was touring a San Francisco jail facility where officers were showing off a special section for incarcerated military veterans, part of a program called COVER. It was something the Sheriff’s Department was proud of -- a relatively peaceful place without a lot of the violence and racial tension endemic to most California lockups.

When I entered the cell area, inmates were hanging out in the day room working on an art project. George approached me and in a soft voice said he wanted to talk. He told me he'd been in and out of jail and prison for drugs and petty theft.

"The revolving door," he said with a timid smile.

George is about 6 feet tall, with short brown hair, a craggy face and deep-set eyes. His body is sinewy and crooked and got me thinking about a statue that’s about to topple over. I noticed he was walking stiffly and seemed to be in pain.

"I literally have enough metal on the inside of my skin, holding my bones together, that I shouldn’t be breathing," he told me. "I shouldn’t even be walking."

When I asked George what he needed most, he said it's obvious: a safe place to live.

"When you don't have housing -- you know, literally being out on the streets -- it's a lot easier on the streets if you are on dope," George said. "You know, it just is."

Artist Joel Daniel Phillips drew this charcoal and graphite portrait of George Arthur.
Artist Joel Daniel Phillips drew this charcoal and graphite portrait of George Arthur. (Courtesy Joel Daniel Phillips)

George was right. After he got out of jail he went back to the streets and back to drugs. It was kind of strange because I kept bumping into George. I’d see him passing by KQED on his way to San Francisco General Hospital. Or in front of Trader Joe's on Bryant Street. Or near my son's school on Nob Hill. Sometimes he was in a daze and didn't recognize me.

Then he started showing up near my house in the Lower Haight. On Sundays he’d grab a free breakfast at a nearby church and sit on a bench to watch the dogs playing in Duboce Park. One morning I found him lounging in the sun with his shirt off, reading a paperback (Plato's "Republic"), nibbling on a bagel and smiling at a small white terrier named Pepper.

George recognized me and I joined him on the bench. He talked about trying to get housing at a newly opened facility for homeless vets called Veterans Commons. But there seemed to be obstacles. His mood darkened as he talked about the daily struggles of life on the street, especially the challenge of staying safe.

"Often times I feel as though I'm in combat," he said. "Or in a combat environment."

This was two years ago, about the time George got a new caseworker named Charlie Berman. He's a social worker at Citywide Case Management, a program that provides services to San Francisco's homeless and mentally ill. By the time Berman was assigned the case, George had racked up more than 200 visits to treatment programs and the emergency room. He was belligerent. Sometimes violent. Berman explained to me that George had multiple brain injuries that made it hard to remember people and events and to put things together to make good decisions.

"George is someone who's been through a lot," he said. "He's a survivor."

When I first met George I assumed his injuries happened in combat. But it turns out he was never in combat because his time in the military was very brief. George joined the Marines back in the late 1980s, hoping to follow in his father’s footsteps in the military. But he flunked out of basic training due to a shoulder injury and allegations of drug use prior to enlisting. It's a failure that still haunts George today. He was living in Chicago at the time. He got married and had a son who died just a few days after birth. So George came West to escape his grief. But in San Francisco his marriage fell apart and he got deeper and deeper into drugs -- weed, meth, cocaine. He got into brutal fights and had a bad motorcycle accident.

George looks back on these years as a slow-motion suicide. "Killing myself, killing the developed me," he says. "That’s what I was doing."

Deeply troubled, George decided to end his life. He remembers hopping the bus to San Francisco’s Presidio -- the former Army base. He drank a bottle of scotch and made his way up to the Golden Gate Bridge.

I got a copy of the Coast Guard report from that day, March 9, 2008. It describes officers rushing to the center of the bridge to save a man who was hanging by his hands from a railing. That man was George. The officers tried to talk him back but he let go and plunged more than 200 feet into the water. A Coast Guard boat had been alerted and the crew quickly pulled him out.

Few people have survived a fall from the Golden Gate Bridge. Even fewer were ever able to walk again. George's recovery was brutal -- he spent months immobilized in a hospital. His case wasn't picked up by the media. I could find no record of it on the Internet, and other survivors I spoke with have never heard of George. But over the years he’s shared his story with therapists, caseworkers and people he meets on the streets.

Artist Joel Daniel Phillips creates iconic, life-size drawings of people living on the streets.
Artist Joel Daniel Phillips creates iconic, life-size drawings of people living on the streets. (Courtesy Shaun Robert)

One day about a year ago an artist named Joel Daniel Phillips was taking photographs at Sixth and Mission streets, images he uses to create iconic, life-size drawings of people living on the streets. He met George and they ended up talking for nearly an hour.

"He told me the basic synopsis of his story and I was totally astounded," Phillips said. "There are so many people who are, essentially, social dark matter. Who, for a variety of reasons, we don't know how to respond to. People that we walk by and refuse to make eye contact with, even. There are so many stories that aren't told that are just as compelling or even more compelling because they're overlooked."

Phillips snapped a couple of photos and from those images drew a portrait of George that's part of a larger series.

At that time, George didn’t know about the growing push to get veterans off the streets, the billions of dollars the Obama administration was pumping into housing and support programs. In San Francisco, officials created a registry to prioritize the most urgent cases. But when it came to getting George housing, some people thought he wasn't ready.

He wasn't sober and since he barely served in the military he didn't qualify for most VA benefits. But George made it onto the veterans' registry anyway. And after being homeless for nearly 25 years, he got his own apartment at Veterans Commons a few months ago.

George Arthur enters his new apartment in San Francisco.
George Arthur enters his new apartment in San Francisco. (Alexander Cwalinski/KQED)

When Charlie Berman helped George move in, he recalls it was deeply emotional for both men.

"George has such a pattern in his life of things not working out that for him actually to get what he wants, what he hoped for, is a big deal," he said.

George now had a place to live in one of America's most expensive cities. But Berman is the first to admit that arriving from the streets to a new apartment is a major challenge. I saw that close-up when I joined him on a check-in visit a few weeks after George got his new place.

When we entered the studio apartment, George was in a fog and told us he was stoned. Clothes, paper and food were scattered around the room. We sat at a small kitchen table and chatted, and then Berman helped George pick things up. By the time we left, George was feeling better. Berman noted the obvious: Housing is not a cure-all.

"There are these very tangible benefits for George that we can see," he told me. "He's not going to the hospital as much. He's making our appointments for the first time ever on time. It’s amazing."

And at the same time George continues to struggle.

"Something that I've talked to him about is certain behaviors like saving things you find on the ground. Or being aggressive and fighting with people as a way to defend yourself are really functional and make a lot of sense when you're living on the street, but just don't translate well into being housed,” Berman said.

Focusing resources on long-term homeless vets like George is paying off around California. Since 2011, Los Angeles, San Diego, Riverside, Fresno and San Francisco have all seen steady declines in the number of military veterans living on the streets or in shelters by as much as 50 percent.

“Veterans in the last five years, compared to other homeless subpopulations, have received a great deal of resources,” said Leon Winston, chief operating officer at Swords to Plowshares, the group that operates the Veterans Commons facility, just south of Market Street. "It’s been a bit of an embarrassment of riches."

George Arthur poses with reporter Michael Montgomery (L) and artist Joel Daniel Phillips (R), who holds the portrait he drew of George.
George Arthur poses with reporter Michael Montgomery (L) and artist Joel Daniel Phillips (R), who holds the portrait he drew of George.
(Charlie Berman/KQED)

As a coda to this story, I gathered recently at the offices of Citywide Case Management with George Arthur, Charlie Berman and Joel Daniel Phillips. Phillips brought along his portrait of George, mounted in a heavy frame. In the drawing, George is dressed in a T-shirt, sweatshirt and surf shorts, and is staring straight at the viewer.

"That’s kind of my look," he said with a laugh.

George was seeing the portrait for the first time and took a very close look.

"It makes me wonder what it is that is in his/my mind. It’s really expressive work. There's no question," he said.

He told me he liked it. But he had a concern -- what was he to do with the drawing? It was too large to carry around on the streets. I reminded George that he now has an apartment with walls. He could hang the portrait there. And that’s what he did, and that’s where it is today. At George’s place.

Editor's Note: To receive VA health care benefits, recent veterans must have served 24 continuous months or the full period for which they were called to active duty, although there are exceptions. However, as part of the VA’s homeless program, a person can be considered a veteran eligible for certain benefits regardless of the length of active service.