ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — When Air Force veteran Chris Jerman Jr. entered the New Mexico Veterans Integration Centers, or VIC, in 2002, his jeans were tattered and his dirt-caked hands trembled, he says, from cocaine and alcohol withdrawal.
Fermin Ortega, operations manager at the integration centers, offered coffee. Jerman refused for fear of spilling it, so Ortega gave him half a cup.
"I just remember that when nobody wanted to be very close to me, he walked right over and gave me that half-cup of coffee," says Jerman, 48, whose tattered jeans have given way to a sharp suit and glinting watch.
"He gave it to me without wanting anything from me," he says. "That's really powerful when someone's fresh off the street."
Now about to earn his bachelor's in accounting, Jerman is one of hundreds of veterans lifted out of homelessness by agencies and programs in Albuquerque. But government estimates show that at least 460 more in the city and 750 in the state will be without a bed tonight.
Veterans are about 9 percent of the general population, but they make up nearly 20 percent of the homeless, says Jeff Doyle, homeless program coordinator for the New Mexico Department of Veterans Affairs. There are several housing programs for homeless veterans in the city that receive limited funding from the VA, which program directors say amounts to about $30 a day per veteran. But providing these services requires more funding, from private donations and sometimes the state.
According to the state Department of Veterans' Services, the state has slashed its contracts with individual housing programs like the VIC by 14 percent, from a statewide total of $273,500 in fiscal year 2010 to $234,300 in the current fiscal year.
"We work paycheck to paycheck," says Larry Campos, president of the VIC board of directors, later adding that the program saw a $247,000 annual contract with the state slashed to $212,000 about two months ago.
The VIC and similar programs are designed to meet basic needs so veterans can concentrate on fixing the problems that sent them to the street, says David Sisneros, director of the VetTran housing program for male veterans at the Metropolitan Homelessness Project in Albuquerque.
Doyle suspects that estimates used by the VA are a "real undercount," because the state is largely rural and the Albuquerque numbers come only from Housing and Urban Development surveys done in shelters.
There's no single reason so many veterans are homeless, he says. Many lose jobs or get divorced; a smaller number have mental health or substance abuse problems related to their time in war.
"Veterans have special needs, because they're dealing with special circumstances," Sisneros says. "Our veterans made a huge sacrifice for the benefit of our country, and they shouldn't be out there on the streets."
Veterans usually have two years of VA funding for these programs, but Sisneros urges residents to leave in three to six months to free up beds for those who need emergency shelter.
VetTran provides shelter to any veteran, but the VIC requires applicants to be interviewed before they can stay. The VIC has a waiting list of 300 people, housing up to 50 at a time.
"One minute, you're in the military, and, the next minute, you're out. After being there for so long, you don't know what to do," says Jaime Zapien, 32, who says he served in the Army in Iraq until 2009. "I can honestly say I was lost."
Though he keeps in touch with his Army buddies, who call one another once in a while to catch up, Zapien says it's hard to outright ask for help because of how infantrymen learn to act in firefights.
"You have to swallow your weakness, so the rest of your team knows, 'Hey, man, it's going to be OK. We're all going to be OK.' "
For Zapien, getting on his feet meant help from the VIC, where he was surrounded by veterans in the program and on staff, including former Army man Ortega. That community is important, he says.
"Another veteran with a single nod, with a single look feels, understands what you're going through," says Zapien, who was awarded a Purple Heart and says he has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and a traumatic brain injury.
Very few homeless veterans are women only about 4 percent, Doyle says but as conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan draw down, that figure will likely grow.
Many have children, says Andrea Nash, program director for the transitional living center of the YWCA in Albuquerque, which will start accepting residents by Christmas. The home has room for up to 10 women and children.
The home will be women-only, Nash says, partly because some military women are sexual-assault victims who don't feel comfortable in programs that include men.
Some women stay at the VIC, including former Air Force Staff Sgt. Kimberly Moore, 48, who says she served from 1980 to 1985, including in Grenada and Panama.
After being injured in a 2009 car crash, Moore lost her job, and she landed a bed at the VIC a collection of rooms at the Value Place Hotel across the street from offices near Central and Tramway four months ago.
When she became homeless, she says nothing weighed so heavily on her mind as finding the next meal and a safe place to rest.
"The first night I was here, the bed was so comfortable, everything was so warm. And the tub was so big!" she says. "I immediately felt safe."
Fellow VIC grad Jerman tells a similar story. He was homeless many years after he says he suffered two injuries, one on the flight line, while in the Air Force from 1985-89. Pain medication worsened a burgeoning drug and alcohol problem, which led him to the streets.
He says homelessness is a state of constant looks over the shoulder, paranoia and fear of other people.
After leaving the VIC for private housing twice in two years, Jerman says he began using drugs again during a third stay and was asked not to return. A few months later, he relapsed again and hit rock bottom, praying every night for two months to die in his sleep.
"You just have nothing," he says. "You're cold inside, and you're utterly abandoned."
In December 2004, he took the VA's offer for last-ditch rehab, and he says he's been sober since. In three weeks, he will have his bachelor's degree in accounting from the University of New Mexico's Anderson School of Management.
He volunteers to modernize the accounting software of the VIC, where he now sits on the board of directors.
Zapien also volunteers at the VIC. He hopes to attend UNM, but in the meantime is registering as a private investigator with the state.
"When I really didn't have anybody to turn to, the VIC was there for me," he says. "Not only did they help me, they really made me feel at home."