Lance Corporal Dwayne Hollis, who served in Iraq, is still dressed in his battle fatigues. He has damaged hearing, and post-traumatic stress disorder has kept him out of work. He is living in a horrid residential hotel and eating from the district’s numerous soup kitchens. His family has abandoned him, but at least here he is far from alone. “I’ve had lots of friends who came back with PTSD, guys who were drug addicts, lots of things. … Everybody’s walking around like a ticking time bomb.”
Lance Corporal Hollis’s life, as with many veterans, seems to be a constant battle with the bureaucracy and rules of the Veterans Administration. After a decade employed by the government, he now finds that his government housing and disability benefits, of $560 a month, are not enough to get him on his feet. “I don’t think I’ve been treated fairly,” he says.
That anger has barely boiled over into the presidential election. But these ex-fighters are going to be an issue, and a big expense, for whoever occupies the White House. To see the sort of investment required, you need to travel farther up Sunset Boulevard, to a hospital-packed district on the edge of Hollywood, and go through an anonymous-looking glass door along the sidewalk.
There you will find Jim Zenner, a big, soft-spoken Iraq war veteran who got messed up after returning in 2006, then got a degree in social work and started running this 76-bed facility, the only one in America devoted exclusively to homeless veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. It’s a convivial, male-only, barracks-like surrounding, with the young soldiers’ dogs and girlfriends in the halls.
“These guys have come back, had some dysfunction … and a lot of them have very little trust in authority or government,” Mr. Zenner says. “The goal of the program is to get them into work or school, to find some of the meaning that they had overseas.”
This is a big change in thinking about troubled veterans, who in the past became virtual wards of the state. Mr. Zenner does not want them to look like Mitt Romney’s mythic 47 per cent (those supposedly dependent on handouts), and sees his job as making them independent.
“They come back with a big sense of entitlement, and that’s a problem,” he says. “Like, ‘I served my country – I deserve special treatment.’ ”
The guys crowded outside the Home Depot are not seeking special treatment. They are just looking for anyone who will give them a few hours of work, lifting boxes or painting walls, for cash, without any awkward questions about their immigration status.
“It’s very difficult. I drive out here every day, hoping for some kind of work – I live far away, so it’s a long drive, and this is no way to get consistent work,” says Estuardo, a Guatemalan who came to the United States a few years ago.
He came here with his son, now 20, in hopes of getting the boy an education. But that has proved impossible, as has any hope of starting a small business: For the more than 11 million immigrants and family members who live here without legal-immigrant status, all pathways out of the shadows are blocked, turning large parts of urban America into impoverished failures instead of immigrant-entrepreneurial successes.
Without education, legal employment or business as a way out, they do not invest in their communities or buy homes, so their neighbourhoods spiral downward. Parts of South L.A. are now controlled by Central American gangs, which offer one of the few sources of stable employment.
This has become a big issue, nowhere bigger than in California. Mr. Obama spent much of his first term trying to pass the DREAM Act, which would make it legal for the U.S.-born children of illegal immigrants to go to university. It has been blocked by Congress.
In August, Mr. Obama issued a memorandum called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, which will help two million immigrants by preventing their children from being deported, giving them at least a chance to pursue schooling and citizenship.