After 19 years in military, homeless in Philadelphia

Today's Philadelphia Inquirer reported on the story of Luis Mejias, a homeless veteran of the Iraq war now living with his family in a takeover house of the Kensington Welfare Rights Union //www.kwru.org , a member of the national Poor People's Economic Human Rights Campaign //www.economichumanrights.org . See below for ways to help the Mejias family and other homeless KWRU families.

Philadelphia Inquirer article, posted on Fri, May. 27, 2005

After 19 years in military, homeless in Philadelphia

by Natalie Pompilio and Sam J. Lin
Inquirer Staff Writers

Luis Mejias admits he did something wrong. Last year, while stationed in Baghdad with the National Guard, he failed a random drug test. The Guard has a zero-tolerance drug policy, and Mejias was immediately discharged.

Now Mejias, 39, is home in Philadelphia - and homeless.

About 250,000 veterans are homeless on any given night, according to Linda Boone, executive director of the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans. More than twice that number are homeless during the year.

A recent survey by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs shows about 220 of those individuals served in the current conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. That number is expected to grow with the troops' continued deployment.

"We're obviously monitoring this pretty closely," said Pete Dougherty, the department's director of homeless veterans programs. "We're not in a panic mode, but it is a concern."

So as Americans mark Memorial Day this weekend, Mejias, his girlfriend, and her three children will be hunkered down in an abandoned North Philadelphia home temporarily claimed by the Kensington Welfare Rights Union.

It is not much - with just mattresses on the floor of the three-bedroom home - but it is better than the battered 1982 Buick Skylark in which they once slept, the adults upright in the front seats, the three children ages 7 to 10 crammed into the back.

"I feel I'm less of a man because I can't provide for them," said Mejias, who served in Kosovo and Iraq during his 12 years in the Army and seven years in the National Guard. "All I want is to be able to walk into a house and say, 'Hi, honey. I'm home.' All I expect from [the government] is to help me find some place to live."

Newspapers nationwide have reported on veterans returning from Iraq and facing homelessness.

"It makes me angry that my government is treating veterans like this, especially with all the flag-waving and 'Support Our Troops' magnets on the cars," said Patrick Resta, a member of Iraq Veterans Against the War, a national organization based in Philadelphia.

Mejias' case is complicated. Although separated from his unit, he still is not officially separated from the National Guard. Mejias has been assigned a Judge Advocate General lawyer who can appeal the pending discharge on his behalf, said Capt. Cory Angell, a Pennsylvania National Guard public-relations specialist.

"I never had any problems, anything, for 19 years," Mejias said. "I gave them the time, and I should be penalized for what I did, but I don't think they should go, 'Boom. You're out.'"

Because Mejias is not formally separated from the military, he is not considered a veteran, making him ineligible for veterans' services.

Cheri Honkala, founder of the Kensington Welfare Rights Union, said she has contacted city and state officials on Mejias' behalf but has had no luck.

"Homelessness is bad, period. But this is a disgrace," Honkala said. "Here's a man who risked his life, was shot at, is emotionally damaged for life, and we can't even find a place for him and these beautiful kids and his partner to sleep."

When Mejias was sent home about a year ago, he found that the house he once had shared with his brother had been foreclosed upon. He found it difficult to find jobs in landscaping and auto repair, work he had done previously. He now suffers from seizures - a side effect of his years in a combat zone, he said - and once when he found work, he suddenly tightened up, nearly broke the rake in his hand in two, and fell to the ground. He awoke in the hospital.

Of Iraq, Mejias said: "It's left me with cockroaches in my head. Sometimes at night I wake up and tell myself, 'You're safe. You're safe.'

"It consumes who you are."

The Mejias family is being housed temporarily in an abandoned HUD house "reclaimed" by the Kensington Welfare Rights Union (KWRU). This family is but one of thousands of homeless families with no place to go in the Philadelphia area, dozens of whom are currently being housed temporarily with the KWRU (in takeover houses, Human Rights Houses, etc). The KWRU believes that decent, affordable housing is a human right.

Like all families struggling for affordable housing, health care, and other basic human rights with the KWRU and PPEHRC, the Mejias family is becoming an active part of the movement for economic human rights in the United States, united with the poor around the world.

To help house the Mejias family and other homeless KWRU families, please:

1) Join our emergency response list, to be called to come to the house in case of an effort to evict the Mejias family.

2) Write a statement supporting the Mejias' family's and the KWRU's struggle for the right to housing.

3) Contribute much needed food, toys, household items to the Mejias household.

4) Make a contribution to the KWRU's ongoing struggle to fight for housing for homeless families in the Philadelphia area.

5) Contribute to buy minutes for a cell phone that is needed for constant communication from the house.

6) Contact the KWRU about how your congregation/ organization can support KWRU's Human Rights Houses, housing homeless families as they both fight for affordable housing for themselves and become leaders in a movement for economic human rights for all.


Kensington Welfare Rights Union (KWRU)
PO Box 50678
Philadelphia, PA 19132-9720
Phone: 215/203-1945
Fax: 215/203-1950
email: kwru@kwru.org
web: //www.kwru.org


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