When help finally arrived for Shannon Scott, the then-64-year-old diabetic Vietnam veteran could hardly move. Bound to a wheelchair with a broken femur, he had spent weeks barely existing in a tent under the bridge of a downtown Oakland overpass.
That is until Swords to Plowshares, a veterans’ nonprofit, found him. A concerned resident had called and warned them of Scott’s dire situation. A couple of staff members quickly sprung into action.
“He had no business being out there on the streets. He was on dialysis,” outreach coordinator Dennis Johnson said. “He was near death when we found him. His eyes were yellow and he was in a permanent stupor where he couldn’t put words together; his energy levels were horrific.”
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Scott, a tall lanky man whose legs spill out well past the hospital wheelchair’s footrests, spoke quietly and deliberately as he recalled his rescue from the streets two months earlier. He is now safe in the comfort of an Alameda motel where he was temporarily staying courtesy of the nonprofit.
“He was like an angel in disguise,” Scott said of the outreach coordinator. “I was on my last leg. I could hardly move anymore.”
Scott is just one of the many veterans Swords to Plowshares serves each year. Founded by Vietnam veterans in 1974, the nonprofit has offices in Oakland and San Francisco, and provides housing, legal assistance and employment and training and other services to about 3,000 veterans a year.
The organization has received funding this year from Share the Spirit, an annual holiday campaign that serves disadvantaged residents in the East Bay. Donations helped support 49 nonprofit agencies in Contra Costa and Alameda counties.
Swords to Plowshares will use the grant to purchase winter supplies such as thermal socks, ponchos, hats and toiletries to fill 125 backpacks for homeless veterans. In years past, the nonprofit gave away the items at a holiday luncheon. Because of the pandemic this year, the packs will include hand sanitizer, masks and food that will be delivered to veterans in emergency housing and elsewhere throughout the holiday season.
The group has made a concerted effort to find veterans who need housing during the pandemic, according to spokeswoman Soo Kim. The organization has found emergency housing for more than 52 homeless veterans in the East Bay so far, she said.
“We think it’s crucial to get them off the streets,” Kim said. “Housing first is the phrase you will hear that opens the door to receiving the care and services they need to become whole person again.”
Kim said outreach coordinators regularly visit homeless encampments, check out referrals, try to get homeless veterans into some kind of emergency shelter and later refer them to Veterans Administration case workers who can help them find permanent housing. They also provide counseling and connect them with whatever other services they need.
“Our mission is to heal the wounds of war,” she said. “We strive to have all the care and services they need to rebuild their lives after they leave the military.”
Scott had not always been homeless. Following his discharge from the U.S. Navy he worked in the air conditioning and refrigeration business. But then both of his parents died — his mom from cancer — which he says “took him for a spin.” His girlfriend later was injured in a bad car crash, and he wound up spending the next few years on the streets.
He recently found temporary housing through an East Bay nonprofit, but then he fell in his kitchen, breaking his femur. After a trip to the hospital, Scott, with screws and stitches in his leg, returned to find he could no longer stay there, he said. With no family and nowhere to go, he wheeled himself back to the street.
Finding a homeless encampment near a bridge, the diabetic veteran settled into some cold nights and hungry days. Sometimes people would bring food and sometimes he would resort to alcohol. “Something’s gotta keep me warm,” he said.
Scott tried to keep up his dialysis appointments whenever he could, but when he’d return, his tent and belongings would be gone. So, he mostly stayed put, he said.
“I was at the point that I really didn’t want to be here anymore,” Scott said of his dire situation. “He (Johnson) really helped me out.”
After finding Scott, Johnson and another outreach specialist connected him with emergency housing and got him back on dialysis. They also helped him get his veteran’s paperwork in order and connected him with Veterans Affairs for more services.
Because of Scott’s physical challenges, the whole outreach team has been working with him, Johnson said, noting a specialist regularly visits to make sure he makes it to his dialysis. He also brings him food that Scott heats up in a microwave, though they plan to soon get him on the nonprofit’s meal program.
After being driven to and from dialysis for three weeks, he’s now able to use paratransit for appointments, and will soon be connected to dental and legal services, Johnson said.
Johnson, a Persian Gulf vet, said the program helped him with a job seven years earlier when he was a struggling student. Now he’s helping other vets.
“We come across a lot of Vietnam-era veterans,” he said. “A lot of them are aging and a lot of them have a lot of similar problems with dialysis and wheelchairs or they are simply getting older as time goes on.”
For Scott, the assistance was immeasurable.
“He really helped me out,” Scott said. “My leg is getting better. I have a brace on it. Now I feel like I am on top of the world.”
Share the Spirit
The Share the Spirit holiday campaign, sponsored by the Bay Area News Group, funds nonprofit holiday and outreach programs in Alameda and Contra Costa counties.
To make a tax-deductible contribution, go to www.sharethespiriteastbay.org/donate. Readers with questions, and individuals or businesses interested in making grants or contributions, may contact the Share the Spirit program at 925-472-5760 or [email protected]