Clifton Braxton sat in his Buick Encore in the parking lot of Washington’s VA Medical Center last week and showed how he could transform the vehicle into a bedroom. An Air Force veteran who served during the Vietnam War, he struggled with substance abuse for many years and has been homeless off and on for a quarter-century. Each night he parks in a different lot in the District or Maryland.
He eased the driver’s seat into its most extended position. “I go right down here and drop it back,” he said, stretching his nearly 5-foot-9 frame semi-horizontally. But Braxton, 72, had to admit that the two blankets in the back seat would be thin comfort against the coming winter. “It’s going to get colder,” he said with a knowing smile.
Across the Anacostia River, Latisha Austin, 29, pulled a blanket taut across her single bed at the U.S. Veterans Initiative in Southeast Washington, a temporary housing facility where she has lived for nearly a year.
The Army National Guard veteran and aspiring singer-songwriter became homeless in 2017 after her roommates and boyfriend stopped paying rent on their shared space. She couch-surfed and stayed in abandoned houses before moving into the veterans’ facility, where residents live in shared suites, must be present for a nightly roll call, and are not allowed to bring food or drinks into their rooms.
Austin said she longed to “go back to being a grown adult again,” adding, “I really like to bake.”
Austin and Braxton have been approved to move into a new permanent housing complex for homeless veterans in an updated building on the former Walter Reed hospital campus in Northwest Washington. Soon, the certificate of occupancy for the facility will be issued and they will be free to move in.
Known as the Walter Reed Veteran Apartments, the complex will house 77 single people in efficiency units and provide services for vocational training, job placement, substance abuse, psychiatric issues, physical health, family relationships and legal concerns. The vets range in age from their 20s to their 70s, and many have served in conflicts from Vietnam to Afghanistan.