My dad was homeless for 15 days between Thanksgiving and Christmas this year.
I don’t think a lot of people understand what that really means. They think of homeless people as “bums” who “just need to get a job.” Or, they think it’s some kind of “lifestyle choice” for people who just want to hang around and sleep in tents. But it’s not. And it is, but not like you think. In this case, like many others you never see or hear about, becoming homeless was due to a series of bad choices, lack of preparation, poverty, our swiss cheese social safety net, and a medical crisis—a story similar to any you’ll hear at a homeless shelter.
My dad was lucky that we’re still fighting for him. Not everyone has that privilege. Being ostracized or not having anyone left to take care of you is all it takes to end up sleeping outside.
My dad was diagnosed with dementia on Thanksgiving 2020. Over the course of 2021, his condition worsened. He grew paranoid of his wife. He started stealing his own money. And one day in October, he decided to abandon his home in Kentucky and drive to Las Vegas because he was “tired of it all.”
Since then, the Nevada family has been trying to unravel the chaos and mystery of his disease while it quickly worsens. Navigating complicated elder law, Veterans Affairs benefits, and private medical coverage has taught us a lot.
But the biggest lesson of them all, for everyone, is to prepare for death and disease long before you think it will ever happen. You see, my dad and his wife had no power of attorney, no advanced directive, no will, nothing to dictate or direct care in the case of incapacitation. And here we are, three days before Christmas 2021, and they are both incapacitated and separated.
Normally a spouse would direct the other’s medical care. But if they are separated, it adds a lot of complexity. And now that his wife is incapacitated in a hospital in Kentucky while he was in a hospital in Las Vegas, neither of them can make choices for each other. That falls to their children, but it’s not the default. Without them making those arrangements ahead of time, taking control of their futures can be a legal battle with your own unreliable parent. Those laws are there to protect them, yes, but in cases like these, they can create so much stress.
Which leads to…
How he became homeless
A few days after Thanksgiving 2021, my dad grew agitated with his living situation for the third time. First, it was with his wife, then it was with his son in Las Vegas, and this time with his granddaughter down the street.
He decided to just leave her house one day. My niece panicked. She searched for two hours and finally found him several miles away from her house on a major street in Las Vegas. She got him into the car and called me on speakerphone.
He was mad. He was mad at the dogs for barking. He didn’t remember how he got to Las Vegas. He didn’t know he was in Las Vegas to begin with. He didn’t like being told what to do.
My niece and I tried to tell him he couldn’t run away from home because it scared us. Our approach backfired. He kept hearing “no.” He kept hearing us trying to control him. He didn’t like any of it.
He started screaming at her. He grabbed her arm. He grabbed the wheel. He started cussing at her. He threatened to smash the windows with his very fancy U.S. Marine Corps pocket knife he kept on him 24/7. He screamed at her to let him out or else.
She, brilliantly, was heading toward the nearest hospital while he did all this. As soon as she pulled into the ER lot, he jumped out of the car and ran.
For five hours he was missing. He found a way to charge his phone in an empty parking lot and called his wife back in Kentucky, who called my niece, who called the police. My niece was traumatized and afraid to approach him. Police took him to the hospital.
Law enforcement initiated what is called a “Legal 2000.”
“A 72-hour hold under Nevada law—also called an emergency admission, Legal 2000 or L2K—is when a person with mental illness gets placed under medical observation, evaluation, and treatment for three days,” according to Las Vegas Defense Group. “The purpose of a 72-hour hold is to keep these patients safe while the next steps are determined. The hospital can release the patient, or the patient can decide to stay voluntarily, or else the hold can be extended with a district court order.”
At this point, my dad was a ward of the state. Homeless advocates and social workers use the Legal 2000 method to help develop a care plan for people dealing with mental illness. The hospital becomes their in-between space, not unlike the airport became Tom Hanks’ home in “The Terminal.”
Navigating ‘benefits’ to get out of homelessness
Veterans Affairs assigns people a percentage of disability. That percentage threshold dictates what benefits a veteran does or does not get. Below 70% disabled, and the veteran receives an allowance or monthly pensions/stipend. Certain benefits, such as free pharmacy and hospital visits kick in, too. Above 70% and the VA starts to pay for everything up to and including nursing home facilities.
I remember the day my dad called a few years ago to excitedly tell me he was getting money from the VA due to “Agent Orange exposure.” I thought the Marine Corps made him drink too much Kool-Aid. I later learned that in Vietnam, after mustard gas was banned, the military used a new chemical to destroy things. Agent Orange is a “tactical herbicide” meant to destroy the jungle and crops to clear space for troop movement. It also hurt humans.
Exposure to Agent Orange “is linked to type 2 diabetes, immune system dysfunction, nerve disorders, muscular dysfunction, hormone disruption, and heart disease,” among other immediate problems, according to the HISTORY Channel.
The VA has more specifically listed what issues you can file for:
- Bladder cancer
- Parkinsons (a form of Alzheimers)
And it is what entitles some Vietnam veterans to benefits in the first place. The VA initially linked my dad’s type 2 diabetes to Agent Orange. Without that connection, he would get nothing from them.
There is a gross irony in the way the military will find ways to kill people and then attempt to compensate them once that damage has been exposed (and only when). The U.S. still will not acknowledge the same problems in Vietnamese victims because it would be admitting to committing war crimes, Fred A. Wilcox, author of Scorched Earth: Legacies of Chemical Warfare in Vietnam, told the Vietnamese news source VN Express International.
Said another way: my father’s condition could have very well been caused by exposure to a toxin the military/country he served created to destroy plant and human life. And so now he is entitled to compensation for it; compensation he desperately needs in order to stay alive.
But only because he was honorably discharged.
As of his last check-up, he was 60% disabled.
Unfortunately, that number doesn’t matter outside of the VA medical system. In the private hospital my niece was able to reach before he broke her car windows, Medicare takes over.
The Las Vegas hospital luckily chose to honor the hastily signed medical power of attorney we set up when he arrived in Las Vegas that was originally only supposed to work in the VA network. This small, but powerful, favor allowed my niece and I to take over his care once the Legal 2000 wore out.
We learned that his current state of dementia prevents him from signing any new power of attorney documents. But as long as he stays in medical facilities, we can help. With the help of an amazing hospital case manager, we located a memory care group home, toured it, paid the rent, and helped him move in.
What happens next?
My dad is no longer homeless today.
We’ve started down the long path of applying for additional benefits to supplement the VA and Social Security. For now, these pay the rent and nothing more. One form after another leads to months of waiting. The federal government has earned its reputation. If he stays in this private group home, his monthly allowance will have to pay for everything going forward. But if we fill out VA form Z45 and X22 and ABC123, collect discharge papers, jump up and down on one leg while rubbing our bellies, and cry in front of the right people, then he can get a little more allowance to cover any other costs that come up next.
Ultimately, it’s unclear what the future holds, but he’s safe and has a little bed and a nightstand and a pot to poop in (if only you knew). So crisis averted for now…all thanks to a toxic chemical made to destroy the Vietnamese jungle 60 years ago.