Walla Walla veteran's long road leads to D.C.

Once homeless, Mike Brown will testify Thursday at a congressional hearing on efforts to end homelessness among veterans.

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CORD case manager Mike Brown pulls things together for his trip to Washington D.C. to speak to congress about the challenges of making sure housing is available for homeless veterans. Brown, who used to be homeless and addicted to methamphetamine, now works, pays taxes and has stable housing. Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Thursday is bound to be a historic day all the way around, Mike Brown figures -- and one he couldn't have seen coming during his Dumpster-dining days.

Brown is headed to Washington, D.C., this morning, scheduled to speak Thursday at a joint hearing at the request of U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash. It's not his first trip to the nation's capital, but it's his first walk-on part, so to speak.

Murray, a senior member of the Appropriations and Veterans Affairs Committees, will chair a "unique" joint hearing on efforts to end homelessness among America's veterans, according to the senator's office.

The purpose is to examine ongoing challenges and efforts of serving veterans, including examining existing federal programs that have failed to successfully target chronically homeless veterans.

Murray and others hope to improve homelessness prevention efforts for the new generation of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans.

The hearing will include a range of perspectives, including that of Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseski and Housing Secretary Shaun Donovan.

And that of Mike Brown, in his first "overwhelming" appearance before a subcommittee, the Walla Walla man said Tuesday.

Brown works as an assistant program manager at Corps of Recovery Discovery, or CORD, at Valley Residential Services. He is also a case manager, counseling veterans seeking permanent housing and employment.

CORD is designed to break the cycle of homelessness in veterans with a combination of social and health-care services. Clients can change their situations through skill building, addiction treatment, housing stability and community involvement.

The transitional housing program is a cooperative effort between the Jonathan M. Wainwright Memorial Veterans Affairs Medical Center, Walla Walla Housing Authority and Valley Residential Services. In place for 13 years, CORD serves 44 clients in six residences.

According to a point-in-time survey released today by Walla Walla's Homeless Alliance, 65 homeless people here have veteran affiliation. That's up from 55 in 2009. Only 27 reported gettng veterans benefits.

He is more than qualified to proclaim the importance of the local veteran housing program, Brown believes. "My life has changed over the past five years because of CORD."

He was raised in a military family and did his own service in the Army during the Vietnam era, Brown said. By 1994, he was married and a father of two, working in the transit system in Tri-Cities.

He'd found his slice of the American dream, the 54-year-old said.

Then he found meth.

It took no time at all to lose everything, starting with his job and ending with his family. His belief in who he was had vacated, as well, Brown said.

"I spent nine years using on the street and hiding from the law ... I ate out of Dumpsters."

The veteran eventually ended up in front of a judge who gave Brown a choice: change lifestyles or change addresses ... to prison, he said. "I had to surrender and accept help."

Coming to Walla Walla to get help at the VA was much further than a map indicates, he explained "It's only 48 miles from the Tri-Cities, but it's like night and day. I had to get out of there."

After his inpatient treatment at the medical center, Brown found refuge in a CORD house, where he "learned to be a functional citizen again," he recalled.

Staying in the program two years allowed Brown the time he needed to relearn the ways of society, including components such as finding and keeping employment and good tenant skills. Veterans with problems -- legal, history of substance abuse, sparse employment records -- can have trouble renting, he explained. "I had to find a landlord who would take me with my background, one who would give me a shot."

Brown did find that person and the studio apartment he has rented for three years might be small, "but it's my place, like the Taj Mahal to me."

Having that stability has been the foundation for rebuilding his life, Brown said. He's worked at the CORD program since 2007, "helping vets follow the path I've taken."

His newly minted map has led back to his family, he added. "Last weekend I gave away my daughter at her wedding."

It's a long way from mining garbage for meals, Brown noted.

The housing part of recovery is now served by vouchers, giving veterans a more seamless transition into a society many are eager to contribute to once again. "Housing and income are the two barriers to long-term success. Transitional housing is wonderful but it's temporary," he said. "I think what (Murray) wants is a continuance of vouchers, locally and nationally. Vets come here from all over to get service, there is a lot of good recovery here for guys who are trying to get their lives together."

His turn to say all that to a broader audience comes at 10 a.m. on Thursday. "I hope I do a good job," Brown said as he tied up loose ends in his office before leaving for the trip.

"I'm so honored I get to meet Patty Murray. She's one of my heroes, she does so much for veterans."

Sheila Hagar can be reached at sheilahagar@wwub.com or 526-8322. Check out her blog at blogs.ublabs.org/fromthestorageroom.

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