[EDITOR'S NOTE: Between now and Dec. 31, Toledo Faith & Values will re-publish the 10 most-read articles since the website was launched Aug. 24. Today's article is No. 6.]
Dusty Hill, bass player for ZZ Top, spent about 90 minutes Thursday afternoon (Nov. 1) visiting with formerly homeless veterans at a Toledo Veterans Affairs center.
Hill was raising awareness for Veterans Matter, a pioneering Toledo program that has helped 25 veterans and their families move into stable housing since it was founded in February by local activist Ken Leslie.
The nonprofit group, starting with a $26,250 grant from ProMedica’s advocacy fund, pays for housing deposits that previously created an insurmountable obstacle for veterans applying for federal housing help.
Hill, dressed all in black with a black wide-brimmed hat, black gloves, and sunglasses, with a thin gray scarf and trademark bushy red beard, sat on a couch and chatted with a handful of veterans for about half an hour before the media entered.
“It’s the least I can do. It’s the least anybody can do,” Hill said of his support for Veterans Matter.
The bearded bass player was in Toledo for ZZ Top’s concert Thursday at Stranahan Theater. The band’s tour manager, Pablo Gamboa, accompanied Hill and handed 30 tickets to VA officials to distribute to local veterans.
Shirley Green, representing Toledo Mayor Mike Bell, presented Hill and Gamboa with a proclamation from the city thanking them for “bringing attention to the cause.”
One of the men with whom Hill spoke, Bryan Rynicke, said with tear-filled eyes that he had been living in abandoned houses for 10 years until a representative of Veterans Matter tracked him down last winter and helped him move into a house.
His life had fallen apart in 2002 after a serious motorcycle accident cost him his job as a carpenter. He was on crutches for 2 ½ years, he said, and his injuries made it impossible to do carpentry.
And his wife passed away two years before the accident, he said.
“The last nine months have changed my life around totally,” he said. “I’m set to go to college! I’m going to Owens [Community College] in January. They opened enough doors for me. My life has changed.”
One former Marine, Joe Markowski, 48, of Maumee, said he hopes that having a Rock and Roll Hall of Famer like Hill lend his support will benefit veterans beyond northwest Ohio and southeast Michigan where Veterans Matter is already working.
“With Dusty and the band bringing awareness to the issue they possibly could take more of a national approach to the subject they’re dealing with,” Markowski said.
Hill said he and his wife Charleen “Chuck” Hill plan to “get something going” in his hometown of Houston.
“We’re looking to see if we can get people aware of this,” he said. “Get something going down there. I live there. It wouldn’t be right if I didn’t try to do something down there, too. But it ought to be in every town,” he said.
He said he didn’t want to sound “preachy” but “it’s just sad that people want to ignore these problems. They really would rather not know that they exist. But they do.”
Tom Haley, 53, of Toledo, is an Army veteran who moved into his own place this year and now helps with homeless programs, including last weekend’s Tent City in downtown Toledo.
“It’s a great time for me. I feel very blessed for being able to help and to give back,” he said. “Like most homeless people, I never figured I’d be homeless. But it happened.”
Dick Maxwell, 65, a Navy veteran who served in the Vietnam era, described Hill’s support as “phenomenal.”
“If we don’t have famous people, nobody else is going to pay attention,” he said. “We worship famous folks. He’s going to make a big difference.”
Shawn Dowling, regional health care coordinator for homeless veterans, said Veterans Matter’s help has slashed the average time it takes the VA to get a homeless vet into a house or apartment from 137 days to 71 days.
“They don’t have to jump through a number of hoops, and veterans don’t have to go shopping for services,” she said.
But there’s a lot more work to do, Dowling said, pointing out that there are 650,000 homeless people, including 64,000 homeless military veterans, in the United States.
The major reason for homeless among veterans has shifted from drug and alcohol addiction five years ago to a lack of jobs and economic opportunity, she said.
“Today 50 percent of the homeless veterans we help are with us because of a lack of financial resources. The bottom has just fallen out [of the economy]. We’ve never had that before,” Dowling said.