Last winter, U.S. Army veteran Don Dumlao stood on top of the railroad tracks outside of Stockton and watched the makeshift camp he had been living in for six months wash away in a torrential downpour.
Dumlao, who served in the Army from 1972 to 1976, became homeless a couple of years before, after his boss and landlord died unexpectedly.
He found himself on the streets and soon descended into a spiral of alcoholism. Watching his tent and other supplies sail away down a river of rainwater was a wake-up call, Dumlao said.
“My heart just dropped — no camp, no tent, it’s all blown away,” he said. “I told myself, ‘It’s obvious I ain’t sleeping here no more.’”
Dumlao, 59, found his way to a small homeless shelter in Stockton that, because of his veterans status, referred him to the Salvation Army in Lodi. He has been clean and sober since he entered the Salvation Army’s Hope Harbor Shelter on Sacramento Street in January.
Dumlao now lives with three other veterans in one of the Salvation Army’s two transitional housing apartments reserved for veterans on Stockton Street. The Salvation Army also reserves eight of its beds at the Hope Harbor shelter for veterans.
Since 2009, the Salvation Army’s Lodi Corps has been receiving grant money from the federal Department of Veterans Affairs to provide shelter, job training and services such as sobriety and anger management programs to help homeless veterans get their lives back on track.
The Salvation Army is a charitable Christian organization founded in London in 1865 that organizes itself along quasi-military lines. Most people are familiar with the organization through their thrift stores and the bell ringers who collect donations on street corners during the holiday season.
Dave Warner, the Lodi Corps’ veterans men’s case manager, said the Lodi program has worked with veterans for years, but the formal relationship with the VA has allowed the program to better help those in need.
As case manager, Warner helps the homeless veterans who come through the program develop the skills they need to transition into living on their own. He helps them secure VA benefits, and makes sure they get to their doctors’ appointments, find work around town and get to a point in their lives where they no longer need the help of the Salvation Army.
Capt. Martin Ross, who heads the Lodi Corps, said the goal is to help veterans — and countless other men, women and families in need — develop their minds, spirits and bodies so they can make it on their own.
Warner said many of the veterans he serves have problems with drugs and alcohol, but that’s not always the case.
U.S. Marine Corps veteran Jim Hicks, 48, found himself on the streets after health issues — including triple-bypass heart surgery in 2005 — left him unable to find steady work and financial pressures got to be too much.
In March, he was spending the night in a motel after scrounging together some money doing odd jobs. He saw a VA commercial on television that offered veterans a number to call for help. Hicks called the number and was referred to the Salvation Army’s Lodi program.
Hicks said living on the streets left him scared and desperate.
While he never robbed anyone, Hicks said, he often found himself asking, “Am I going to have to steal from someone just so I can eat?”
Hicks now lives in the Salvation Army’s transitional housing apartments, and is working with Warner’s help to get VA disability benefits.
“They don’t do it for us, but they put us in the right direction,” Hicks said. “You’re responsible for yourself to get the things accomplished, but the program makes it easier.”
Veterans are allowed to stay in the program for up to two years, but Hicks is hoping to have his disability benefits approved in the next couple months and be back in his own apartment in the spring.
Warner said 80 percent of the veterans who have come through the program have been able to successfully make the transition back into living in society on their own.
Derek McGinnis, a VA case manager based in Menlo Park who is the liaison for the Salvation Army’s Lodi program, said the relationship with the Salvation Army in Lodi is a boon for the federal agency. That’s because local charitable organizations and their staff — like Warner — are better situated to help homeless veterans find resources in their community.
“It’s a perfect collaboration,” McGinnis said. “I’ve been privileged to work with Dave and the Salvation Army to get our veterans the help they need.”
Ross said the program also sees veterans — who he described as a close-knit family — working together and offering each other support in their quest to get their lives back on track.
Joe, a 53-year-old Navy veteran who did not want to give his last name, entered the Salvation Army’s program a week ago. He became homeless over the summer after his house was foreclosed. He said other veterans pointed him to the program.
While still new to the program, he said he has been learning from fellow veterans like Dumlao about how to take advantage of the services he desperately needs.
“It shows me it can be done — there’s a future,” he said.
For his part, Dumlao said he plans to take the whole two years available in the program in order to save some money, find a steady job and make sure he stays sober and gets his anger issues under control. Then he said he’ll feel ready to head back out on his own.
“(The program has) changed my life,” Dumlao said. “Every day I’m here — safe, clean and sober — helps build that foundation I’ll need.”
Contact reporter Todd Allen Wilson at firstname.lastname@example.org.