Dead ends

Homeless senior veteran decries difficulties in finding help

Joe Grossman fears for his life in the face of failing health and homelessness.

Joe Grossman fears for his life in the face of failing health and homelessness.

photo by Ken Smith

Resources for veterans:
Go to to learn more about the Butte County Veterans Service Office and other resources available to veterans.

On Monday morning (July 15), 73-year-old Army veteran Joe Grossman felt like he’d reached the end of the line. He was almost out of gas, out of money, and exhausted. After more than a week of subsisting on peanut butter and crackers, bathing in Big Chico Creek, sleeping in his van, and suffering through the summer heat—his discomfort exacerbated by a medical condition called hyperthermia—he honestly believed it could be his last day on Earth, and he had something to say.

Grossman called the Chico News & Review office around 11 a.m., requesting a reporter meet him in north Chico. There, in the lobby of a fast-food restaurant he’s come to know well in recent days—the workers refill his coffee and don’t throw him out, he noted—he detailed his current battle to obtain immediate medical care and housing through his veterans’ benefits or other social services.

“I keep hearing these things take time,” Grossman said. “Well, I’m out of time. The VA [Veterans Affairs] said I could have an appointment three weeks down the road, but I’m not going to live that long.”

Grossman said he’d arrived in Chico just over a week ago and has been intermittently homeless for the last two years (he didn’t want to burden his children, he explained). His last address was an apartment in Phoenix provided by HUD-VASH (the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s partnership with Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing), but he said the urban Arizona air was bad for his health.

He set out for California in May, with Chico—where he’d spent extended stays in the 1990s—as his ultimate goal, spending a few weeks in Bakersfield along the way.

It doesn’t take a doctor to realize Grossman is not physically well. He is gaunt and tired-looking—gray skin hanging from a walking skeleton—and has to excuse himself regularly to use the restroom. He suffers from a laundry list of ailments and feels he has more serious problems that go undiagnosed by what he feels is sub-par health care he receives from senior and veterans’ benefits.

Mentally, he’s quite astute, if excitable, but admits his faculties are presently slipping, which he blames on his current living conditions (or lack thereof). He also acknowledges short-term memory loss, but to compensate he keeps a pen and notebook on hand in which he meticulously records names, phone numbers and details of communications he’s had with the Butte County Veterans Service Office (BCVSO) and other agencies.

He said he sat through an hours-long intake session with a medical social worker at the VA Chico Outpatient Clinic that yielded no results. He claims he first called the BCVSO before leaving Arizona, and that many of his subsequent calls to various agencies have gone unanswered, without follow-up, or sent him on a circuitous goose chase.

“The VA sends you out to the social services who tell you to go back to the VA, and it keeps going on and on.

“The best the VA did here was direct me to the Torres Shelter, and they turned me away because I’m not taking my medications,” he said. He explained his rationale for non-compliance: “I quit taking them because they made me dizzy, drowsy, blurry and confused. But I saved them pending finding a doctor who will tell me what I should be taking with all of the conditions that exist.”

He fears a visit to the emergency room or extended hospital stay before he has a place to stay could lead to his van being impounded, with costly fees being too large for him to reclaim it. He also fears being declared mentally incompetent and losing his independence. Other than the benefits he receives and is entitled to, Grossman said he hates handouts and, when they are offered, he always offers a check post-dated until his next Social Security deposit.

“I just want a bed, a shower in the morning, a place to keep my food fresh and some air conditioning to keep my body cool,” he said. “I know I may very well end up in assisted living and accept that, but hope I can at least be allowed to cook my own food.”

Hannah Williamson, director of the BCVSO, said she couldn’t speak to Grossman’s case specifically, but explained that everyone applying for VA services must meet certain eligibility requirements and complete intake processes, which can take time.

She also said services are prioritized for applicants based on the nature of the veteran’s service (active duty, training or otherwise), and if they received an honorable discharge.

Williamson said sometimes services aren’t immediately available, with housing in particular requiring a waiting period, and in that case, vets are often referred to the Torrres Community Shelter. She also said the BCVSO works with shelter guests who are veterans to seek out other vets to help them obtain further help. If someone doesn’t immediately qualify for VA medical service, they are referred to Enloe Medical Center or, in the case of mental illness, Butte County Behavioral Health.

Grossman survived Monday, and did so more comfortably than he had since his arrival in Chico, due to the intervention of a Good Samaritan. As Grossman talked about his troubles, a man from a nearby table came over to say he’d just ordered him a hamburger, fries and a drink. Grossman’s eyes welled with tears as he expressed his gratitude, to which the man—named Nick—jovially said, “Ah, c’mon buddy, it’s just a sandwich.”

As overwhelmed as he was with the first substantial meal he’d had in days, Grossman was even more grateful when Nick returned later with the key to a motel room he’d reserved him for a week, as well as a $50 gift certificate for food.

When asked what moved him to help, Nick didn’t hesitate to answer: “Well, I’m a vet myself. And if that guy was my dad, I hope somebody would do the same exact thing.”