Chuck, a veteran who wore a mask for privacy during the photo session, in equine therapy (Photo: Laurie Udesky)

In June 2021, a veteran named Chuck finally emerged from a five-and-a-half-month hospitalization for a work injury and subsequent infection that almost cost him  his life. He could have ended up back on the streets, but instead he sought temporary housing from Swords to Plowshares, a San Francisco nonprofit for homeless veterans. While hospitalized, Chuck had lost 50 pounds and had to relearn how to walk, but his battle to stay alive gave him a fresh perspective.  “I didn’t want to die anymore,” he said simply. 

Chuck (who asked that we use only his first name) felt ready to acknowledge his challenges, which included a stint in drug rehab and dealing with bipolar illness, schizophrenia and post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD). Like many other veterans, he faced problems that went beyond trauma from military service: The tipping point for Chuck was when his wife of 25 years died of a brain aneurysm. “I saw my wife die right in front of me,” he said. “She was my best friend, and I lost my friggin’ mind.”

Chuck had enlisted in the Army in 1979 and served with the 82nd Airborne Division, a special forces parachute unit, and as an army ranger in the 1st and 2nd Battalion.. After Chuck’s wife died, he was haunted by a wish to die – one shared by many of his peers: Some 9% of more than 4,000 veterans who participated in  a veterans health study between 2019 and 2020 reported thoughts of suicide. From 2001 to 2019, the average number of suicides among veterans rose 5% to a little more than 17 a day, according to the  National Veterans Suicide Prevention annual report  released in 2021.

Unable to cope with the loss of his wife of 25 years, Chuck began using drugs to dull his grief, eventually losing his job and his home. He found himself on the streets, where he would live for the next six years.

Enter Swords to Plowshares

The mission of Swords to Plowshares, started in San Francisco in 1974, is “to heal the wounds of war, restore dignity, hope, and self-sufficiency, and prevent and end homelessness and poverty among all veterans in need.” The nonprofit works to upend the troubling statistics on suicide for the 3,227 veterans it serves annually. Half of them are over 55 and 44% suffer disabling conditions such as PTSD or traumatic brain injury.  The agency works to get them jobs, peer support, a place to live and military benefits, regardless of their discharge status.

The agency offers traditional therapy, peer counseling, job training, art therapy and group therapy – not to mention equine therapy, which combines outdoor psychotherapy and visits with horses. But its housing and support network is also crucial. In 2021, the nonprofit helped 327 veterans find emergency temporary housing, 163 veterans and 258 veteran families secure stable, long-term housing, and 550 veterans move into supportive housing. There, peer support groups and community healthcare workers help build trust and a sense of safety and connection, potential lifelines to veterans shrouded by isolation.

“This place saved my life. People cared. You get off the drugs and you start having feelings. You start caring.”

Chuck, Formerly Homeless veteran in the bay area

When Chuck arrived at Swords to Plowshare’s De Montfort Avenue residence, a shared home with hardwood floors, high ceilings and sunlight filtering through the windows, he was dogged by memories of sleeping on the street. “People would try to take your shoes right off your feet or take your blanket while you were sleeping. People died out there. It was rough.”

He recalls not feeling quite human at first. “I was a freaking animal,” he said. “I didn’t know how to wash my hands. I didn’t know common decency, courtesy – things that are normal I lost with all the crazy that goes on” on the streets.

Medications helped balance him out, but just getting the basics made a big difference. “I was able to take a shower every day, and I started sleeping in a bed and doing laundry,” he said, marveling at his new fortune. His one-on-one meetings with a caring VA therapist named Frances also helped, he said. 

He looks around at the house and the carefully tended yard that he designed and landscaped, searching for the right words. “This place saved my life. People cared,” he says, starting to tear up. “You get off the drugs and you start having feelings. You start caring.”

Chuck designed and tended this backyard at Plowshares’ De Montfort house (Photo: Laurie Udesky)

Chuck connected with neighbors down the street who gave him odd jobs, managing to save enough money to buy a truck. With those jobs, he said, “I started getting a little love, a little pride back, a little taste of maybe I’m still worth something.”

Last December, after seven years of being out of touch with his family, he reached out to his mother and sister and met them in Sacramento at his mother’s home. By then, he said, “I wasn’t crazy. I wasn’t talking to myself. When I saw my mom, she said, ‘Come in the house, I love you!”

At the De Montfort home, Chuck coped with his ups and downs by going to the gym daily. When something upset him, he’d reach out to onsite staff members for support or grab his music and headset and walk up and down the stairs in the house. He also started cooking for his housemates. “I try to cook every day for the guys – hamburgers, ribs, hot dogs, bacon sandwiches. I make lots of strawberry,  blackberry,  blueberry pancakes, whatever. I just want to cook because that helps build a bond between us.” 

It’s those moments of connection that help veterans heal, said Jerri Lee Young, clinical director of residential programs for Swords to Plowshares. 

Jerri Lee Young (Photo: Laurie Udesky)

In her small office at the De Montfort house, she has shelves crammed with art supplies and figurines for sand tray therapy to help residents safely process trauma and a juggernaut of emotions. When tempers flared between two residents in a morning meeting, she asked each to choose a figurine to represent themselves  and another to represent the person they were clashing with. The two were then asked to place the figurines in a sand tray and explain their choices.

“They really listened to each other,” Young said. “They were both able to see exactly what I saw, which was how similar they were. They both had the same sorts of insecurities and the same sorts of life stories and issues about having never felt like they had been listened to in their lives.”  

Most of the veterans the agency serves struggle with depression, PTSD, and suicidal thoughts, Young said. “Those things may have been a precursor to homelessness, but it’s sort of like a chicken and egg thing. Being homeless can give you all of those things.”

Navy Veteran and community organizer Bilal Mustafa knocking on doors at Plowshares’ permanent housing building on 3rd Street in San Francisco (Photo: Laurie Udesky)

Bilal Mustafa, a Navy veteran and  Swords to Plowshares community organizer, went knocking on doors in mid-April at the agency’s permanent housing location in San Francisco’s Mission Bay, home to a large medical campus, trendy restaurants and the Golden State Warriors basketball arena. “My main job is to try to prevent isolation, to pull them out of solitude and get them to participate,” he said. He entices them to a  tenant council meeting by offering pizzas and soda.  

During much of the pandemic, veterans used to communal eating and activities were forced to stay  in their rooms. So Mustafa got creative. He set up a cart, cued up some ice cream-truck music and rolled it down the halls with food and drinks. “A lot of these veterans are older; they may remember the ice cream man,” he said in a video posted on Swords to Plowshares’ Youtube channel. “They were happy to see me and have a conversation.” 

The door-to-door engagement also revealed when a frail veteran wasn’t doing well, so Mustafa could alert staff to get medical help. “There’ve been some tragic situations whereI found vets laying on the floor, because they (fell) and nobody was there to find them.”

Mustafa poses for a portrait just before the tenant council meeting (Photo: Laurie Udesky)

Swords to Plowshare staffers also combated pandemic isolation by bringing in art supplies. For those who were mobile, staff organized trips to parks, picnics and bicycle repair workshops. Despite these efforts, deaths among residents rose 30% during 2020 and 2021.

Reflecting on the vets who died, Mustafa shakes his head sadly. Many of the veterans he interacts with daily, he said, remind him of beloved family members –  “elderly, grumpy, colorful personalities.” 

When it’s time for the tenant council meeting, Mustafa is surprised when a dozen people show up. There are requests for maintenance, concerns about an outsider getting in the building and questions about how to operate a new-fangled barbecue in the courtyard.  

One  veteran who showed up had taped to her door the directive “Don’t Bother Me!” – yet he had persuaded her to open the door and receive some food. Now she was at the meeting and laughing. “That’s really a breakthrough,” Mustafa said.

Horses for healing

Breaking down barriers to usher formerly homeless veterans toward connection and healing is also a personal mission for Kim MacLean, co-founder of Veterans and Equines Together, which offers equine therapy to veterans. Her own brother committed suicide, and when she heard about high rates of suicide among veterans, she knew she wanted to help. “That hit home pretty hard, and that’s when I decided that this is what I want to do,” she said.

MacLean and Young were both certified in equine therapy by a psychotherapy group called the Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association, which pairs mental health professionals with horse specialists. 

“In the hands of a skilled treatment team, the horses’ unique sensitivity can help clients understand their own internal processes more readily than hours of talk therapy,” the group states on its website. A study in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry of equine-assisted therapy in 63 veterans with PTSD found it  “safe, tolerable, well-regarded, and beneficial” for veterans who meet the DSM-5 criteria for PTSD.

Jerri Lee Young with Kim MacLean, the cofounder of Veterans and Equines Together, in a team-building outing in Novoto, California, in May. (Photo: Laurie Udesky)

A Plowshares veteran and staff outing to MacLean’s  horse ranch  in Novato, California, this May evolved into a sendoff for Chuck, who was about to  move into his own apartment.  “I am here for the sandwiches,” he quipped, drawing laughter from the group.  Pausing for a moment, he gestured at  the surroundings – the horses, a forest of bay and oak trees. It’s a reprieve, he said, from the clash and thrum of city living. 

The group filed into a paddock, greeted with nuzzles from two white horses. Young guided the group in grooming them, putting on halters and walking them. Chuck, dressed in camouflage with a black mask shielding most of his face, grabbed a handful of grass as an offering to one of the horses.

What happened next was like sand tray therapy on a giant scale: The vets were asked to choose objects that represent life at the De Montfort house, then coax the horses over and explain their selections – including an egg carton, a chair, a cell phone, a computer, cowboy hats, bicycle helmets and an army canteen. Chuck grabbed some cookbooks and a mini staircase. 

“I brought the steps over because when I got to De Montfort I was below the bottom step,” he said. And the cookbooks: “I don’t care what’s going on – you feed somebody, you get to know him and everything’s better.” 

The hunt for objects that represented life in Plowshares’ De Montfort house (Credit: Laurie Udesky)

He pointed to the staircase. “The middle stair reminds me that when I started walking these stairs, I crashed and wrecked,” he said. “But I got back up again, and now look.”

Young asked Chuck to gather items representing his new house, and he grabbed a cast iron pot, a blanket, an electric sander,  a pail, a canteen and a pair of binoculars. 

Then Young upped the ante. The participants were told to remove the horses’ halters and figure out a way to cajole them over. They offer grass; nothing happens. “Come on, girl!” urges  housing specialist Antonique Johnson. The horses don’t move. “I got an idea!” said Chuck. He grabs a rug as the others look on and wraps it gently around the horse’s neck. “Come on,” he said gently, making kissing sounds to coax the horse forward. It follows him to DeMontfort and then to his “new home.”  

Chuck is able to persuade the horse to move by wrapping the rug around its neck and leading it gently (Credit: Laurie Udesky)

Chuck explained his choices. The tools: “I need to work.” The blanket is for his bed. The pot? For cooking the basics. The binoculars? Because his new place looks out on the ocean. “I want to watch the ocean liners,” he said, sounding thrilled at the prospect. He patted the horse on its side. Suddenly the other horse approached Chuck, nuzzling against him.

Young asked what the group noticed about the horses and each other. “Oh, they’re stubborn if they want to be. You can’t really force them to do what they don’t want,” Chuck said. 

“Does that remind you of anyone?” Young teased. 

“No!” said Chuck, laughing. 

“How was it to have staff follow your lead?” asked Young.

“You learn something every day,” he said, patting the horse for emphasis. “You got to get up. I’ve been down long enough. I know I could be better; I’ve got lots of issues. But you know when people give a shit about you, a kind word – I think that’s my biggest thing.”  

A couple weeks later, Chuck was about to move to his own apartment and was already working on jobs refurbishing homes. He knows for certain he wants to help fellow veterans. “These are my brothers no matter what,” he said. “I understand where the pain is and the crazy and all of that.”

“I have people with a lot of expectations of me,” he added.

“And I’m not one to let anyone down.”   

This story was funded in part through a grant from the California Health Care Foundation.