Joseph Augustine knows what it is like to hit rock bottom.
Traumatized by his stint in the U.S. Navy in the early 1980s — where he said he experienced extreme racism and physical and mental abuse, and was denied the opportunity to attend a financial school because he is Black — the now 61-year-old Richmond resident avoided contacting Veterans Affairs for more than three decades, during which he became homeless and broke.
But finally inspired by his beloved fiancé, who died earlier this year from cancer, he reached out to the VA in Martinez in 2017, initiating assistance that continues to this day. The VA referred him in August 2020 to the Berkeley Food and Housing Project, whose Roads Home program has been supporting veterans and their families since 2011 through Supportive Services for Veteran Families, a VA program BFHP administers.
He is now classified as a disabled veteran and through the VA and the Roads Home project has a social worker and is receiving medical assistance. He’s also gotten the financial benefits he is entitled to.
The Roads Home case managers and housing navigators are helping him address his past trauma and the death of his fiancé, and have helped him find an apartment near his mother in Richmond where he grew up. BFHP is providing two years of rental assistance as Augustine builds the financial stability necessary to live independently.
“I was at rock bottom. I was past rock bottom,” Augustine said. “I was devastated and traumatized from the military. I was homeless, living out of my car. I was really down and I wasn’t sure how I was going to make it.” He said he was making some money by doing DJ work and selling music tapes but sometimes had no money for food.
But that has since changed. “l have such a high level of respect (for BFHP),” Augustine said. “They got me off the street. I’m doing really well now, very focused. I want to start my own business,” hopefully something to do with music. He has become a strong advocate for homeless veterans, encouraging them to take advantage of the programs. He also does unpaid work in technical direction and artist development with Bay Area Media Moguls in San Leandro.
Brandon Gilliam, Augustine’s case manager, said Augustine “has been excited and eager to support himself and his housing plan.” He said said Augustine takes direction well and “has displayed amazing leadership and recruitment qualities by outreaching to fellow veterans in the same or worse situations, leading them to seek support from Supportive Services for Veteran Families as well. I’m proud to have worked with such a man who has displayed tremendous tenacity by way of pushing through his adversities.”
The Berkeley Food and Housing Project, which was founded in 1970, received funding this year from Share the Spirit, an annual holiday campaign that serves residents in need in the East Bay. Donations will help support 56 nonprofit agencies in Contra Costa and Alameda counties.
The organization employs 140 staffers, has an annual budget of $21.5 million and receives funding from government sources, foundation grants, corporations, faith organizations and individual donors. Executive Director Calleene Egan said the organization serves approximately 2,000 to 3,000 clients annually; about 1,000 are veterans.
She said its mission is to try and ease the crisis of homelessness by providing food, housing and supportive services.
“Our ultimate goal is to help clients transition from homelessness to affordable permanent housing as quickly as possible and then help maintain housing stability and independence,” she said. “It is an honor and a privilege to provide this much needed support to our nation’s veterans.”
BFHP’s Community Meal program provides over 5,000 meals per month to people experiencing food insecurity, adding a little something extra around the holidays to spark hope and cheer among those who are struggling. Share the Spirit funds would cover the cost of the holiday programming in the meals program.
Augustine, who is still grieving the loss of his fiancé Angela Tucker to lung cancer in February, spends as much time as he can connecting other homeless veterans with the project, doing street outreach with a friend. He said he has referred dozens of homeless veterans to BFHP.
“I pray for every veteran on the street. I love my comrades. I want to help them,” he said. “They gave their country everything they had and when they get out they get parked at the curb. I can tell them ‘I’m a success story. I was one of you guys. I’m 61 years old and I am OK now.’ ”
Augustine heaps praise on the food and housing project, not only for helping him, but what they do for other veterans.
“I am very happy with my life,” he said. “(BFHP) helped me get off the streets. They brought me food; found me a home. They supported me; they did everything. Whatever I needed they came through for me. I love BFHP.”
The Share the Spirit holiday campaign, sponsored by the Bay Area News Group, provides relief, hope and opportunities to residents in need by funding nonprofit holiday and outreach programs in Alameda and Contra Costa counties. To make a tax-deductible contribution, clip the coupon accompanying this story or go to www.sharethespiriteastbay.org/donate. Readers with questions, and individuals or businesses interested in making grants or contributions, may contact the Share the Spirit program at 925-655-8355 or email@example.com.
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Author: Harry Harris