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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Group reaches out to homeless veterans

By Derrick DePledge
Advertiser Staff Writer

Myron Lathan was in the Navy during the Vietnam War, but for him, Memorial Day was more than just a time to honor military people who have fallen.

8-year-old Caitlyn Oswell served food to Roy Goda, who lives at Ala Moana Park, as part of an effort by U.S Vets to feed the homeless population of Hawai'i on Memorial Day. Caitlyn's father, Scott Oswell, worked beside her.

Andrew Shimabuku • The Honolulu Advertiser

It was another day he was clean and sober.

Cocaine abuse took him to the streets and, eventually, to prison at Halawa. As he has tried to rebuild his life in the year since his release, he has found that his military service, his connection to other veterans, is critical to his recovery.

"I have to keep doing what I'm doing. Helping other veterans. Helping other homeless," Lathan said as he volunteered at a barbecue for the homeless yesterday at Ala Moana Beach Park.

U.S. Vets, which provides counseling and transitional housing to homeless veterans, brought enough hamburgers and hot dogs for 200 people. A line had formed at their tent soon after the grill became hot as homeless people enjoyed a holiday picnic with others in the bustling park.

U.S. Vets, founded in 1993, works with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, AmeriCorps and other partners to offer treatment and other services to homeless veterans at Kalaeloa.

The VA estimates that more than 200,000 veterans are homeless each night, or about 23 percent of the nation's homeless population. Forty-five percent have some type of mental illness, while 70 percent have problems with drugs or alcohol.

Many homeless veterans, like Lathan, served during the Vietnam era.

Lathan now lives and works for U.S. Vets at Kalaeloa, where veterans with mental illness or substance-abuse trouble are trying to turn their lives around. "It keeps me very grounded," he said. "It reminds me where I was and where I don't want to be again."

Steven O'Connor, a Marine Corps veteran, is moving to the Kalaeloa complex after his own trouble with cocaine, alcohol and the law. He said he has found it easier to speak with other veterans about his recovery because they have their military service in common.

He said he considers other veterans like a family, but he is aware that even with all the support, the road from substance abuse and homelessness to recovery is rarely a straight one.

"You realize you have entered into a dark area," O'Connor said. "It's easy to make a mistake. It's not so easy to pull yourself out of it."

Reach Derrick DePledge at ddepledge@honoluluadvertiser.com or at 525-8070.