Once-homeless vets offer help and hope to warriors on the streets

By Jonmaesha Beltran and J.J. Santos

Published August 17, 2020

PHOENIX — It’s fundamental to the warrior ethos: Leave no one behind.

Today, that value is being applied to warriors — America’s homeless veterans — facing a different kind of enemy on domestic streets.

Audra Young and Kevin Floyd, both veterans, are on the frontlines of this battle. “We are the team that goes and gets the ones that no one else can reach,’’ Young said.

The two, who now work for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs in Phoenix, use their experience to connect, pulling homeless veterans into treatment and shelter, setting them on a path to permanent housing.

The two talked about what led them to become homeless and their journey out of the darkness.

Marines, homelessness, recovery: Audra Young

For nine months, Young slept on a wood pallet at the bottom of a staircase.

“I would wait outside of Applebee’s and when it was dark and everyone left, I would go after the leftovers in the trash,” Young said. “That was perfectly good food to me.”

Her tumble to the bottom was unfamiliar to the woman who joined the Marines. She served from 1996 to 2005, working as an air traffic controller with a goal to work for the Federal Aviation Administration after her service ended.

But her birthday got in the way. 

The FAA, she said, had an age limit for pilots that meant she was just a month too old to be eligible for the job.

She went to work for the Department of Defense, but found it was much different from the Marines. 

“The accountability was gone, the structure was gone,” Young said. “I wasn’t responsible for 30 troops on my team and I did not adjust to civilian life very well.”

The disappointments came tumbling, one after the other. 

Marital problems. Postpartum depression. Young and her husband got divorced, which set off a decade-long struggle.  

“I was telling myself, ‘I should have stayed in the Marine Corps. That’s what I wanted to do. It probably could’ve saved our marriage,’” Young said. 

The Defense Department job meant she was working with Marines like the ones she once led, but she said she “was on the outside looking in.”

One night at a work party, Young was introduced to drugs.

I started connecting with veterans on a level they can appreciate.
— Audra Young

“You know how they say one hit and it’s over?” Young said. “That was me. I was hooked.”

Young lost control. It was like falling down a mile-long staircase with no handrail. 

“It was a series of unfortunate events that, during my addiction, I used to blame everyone else when in reality it was me,” Young said. “I made those wrong choices.”

Over the next few years, Young lost everything she had — jobs, apartments, cars, her children and her proud zeal as a Marine.

“I was isolating myself from my Marine friends because now I was hanging out with these drug guys and I was more focused on those things,” Young said. “First it was the job, then the apartment, then losing more jobs and more apartments, then I was living in my car and then I lost the car.”

Young said she resorted to crime to survive, then wound up in prison.

“I asked God to deliver me from this addiction and I decided to humble myself to do whatever it takes to make this happen,” Young said. “Well, when I was in prison, I happened to be walking by and saw a poster that said, ‘Are you a female veteran who is preparing for life on the outside? Write this address!’ ”

Young wrote the letter and didn’t get a response for six months. When she received her long-awaited reply, it was from a Veterans Administration liaison. 

“She told me she was going to help me get to where I need to be so I don’t have to go down the same path I was on,” Young said. 

She went to U.S.VETS on Jones Avenue — a sort of halfway house but for veterans. 

The opportunities, she said, came rolling in. 

“They opened the doors, they opened their arms and told me they didn’t care why I was there,” Young said. “They were there to help me.”

What struck Young most was the amount of help the government can provide veterans, even if they are not physically injured. 

“I thought all of this was for vets who were hurt in combat, not for people like me,” Young said. 

She made the most of her post-service privileges. She got help finding housing and medical care for a traumatic brain injury she received during a training exercise. She used her G.I. Bill privileges.  

“Heck yeah, I’ll go to college. It’s about time I go to school,” said Young, who had dropped out of college years earlier. 

She enrolled at Grand Canyon University and received her bachelor’s degree. 

Then, she enrolled for her master’s.

Then, she enrolled for her doctorate, which she is studying for now.

Throughout her time in college, she worked at one place: the Veterans Affairs Department. 

“In five years, I walk out of prison with nothing and because of these resources, I have a master’s degree,” Young said. “I’m working at the VA in the same program that took me in and got me out of homelessness into an apartment.”

Young has taken a doer approach to helping veterans. She is a college graduate, but she still understands what it takes to change lives.

“I started connecting with veterans on a level they can appreciate,” Young said, adding that her resume as a “homeless, drug-addicted veteran with mental health issues” gains veterans’ trust better than someone “who’s read a book and got a degree and says ‘This is what you do with people who have these issues.’ “

A crushed world, then direction: Kevin Floyd

Young’s team partner, former Marine Kevin Floyd, chimes in. 

“People like that can be full of broken promises,” he said. “I’ve been there.”

Floyd served in the Marines from 1978 to 1982. He was stationed in Thailand and Korea.

That’s when he met Mojo, an opium-based drink. 

“I got out of the Marine Corps, and I was lost,” Floyd said. “You built me up to be this mean, green fighting machine, and now I’m supposed to leave? Strung out on that drink, with no more structure.”

Floyd got on a Greyhound bus in Oceanside, California, and at every stop, he’d party. 

And he would party hard. 

“I had nowhere to go. Family had given up on me,” Floyd said. “I had crushed every bridge I had in my life. That ‘wild road to destruction,’ that’s what I was on.”

He ended up on the streets. 

“I thought I was tough,” Floyd said. “The streets showed me I was still that little 16-year-old boy that never grew up.”

It was that boy who found out, at 14, that his parents had adopted him.  

“That crushed my world,” Floyd said. “From that point on, I was trying to fit in to something. Just trying to fit with somebody.”

After his service ended, Floyd spent the next decade on the streets, and found himself on Skid Row in Los Angeles in 1998.

“I found a porta-potty where I lived for six months,” Floyd said. “You know that saying, ‘The freaks come out at night?’ Well, it’s scary in the day, but it’s 10 times worse at night.”

It got to a point where Floyd was in such rough shape, even others who were homeless in Los Angeles told him he didn’t fit in.

“I hadn’t changed my clothes in two to three weeks, and homeless people at MacArthur Park told me, ‘You don’t belong here,’ ” Floyd said. “I went to the tar pits and the same thing happened there. They told me to leave.”

Floyd went back to his home — the porta-potty — where a young man gave him direction.

“He told me, ‘You’re a veteran. I can tell by the way you walk and everything. You see that bus right there? That bus will get you out of here. It’ll take you to the VA,’ ” Floyd said. “He took me to the VA and they deemed me a polysubstance addict. I didn’t have a drug of choice, but if it helped me forget, I took it.”

Floyd went to a VA facility for a medical exam. The doctors retreated to a corner and started pointing at him. He put his fear aside and asked a question.

“What did I do?”

“You didn’t do anything,” the doctors told him. “You just have enough cocaine, heroin and alcohol in your system to kill a horse.”

The doctors sent Floyd to a long stint at a rehabilitation center in Kentucky called The Healing Place. Floyd said that was where he found a great sense of healing. He started teaching a class at the facility, where he eventually became a peer mentor. He found himself calling on the higher power Young had also reached for. 

“God gave me my calling there at that place,” Floyd said. “I was put here to help people in my situation.”

Floyd traveled to Tulsa, Oklahoma, to continue his work as a psychological aid in the VA to help vets who had been through a similar situation. From there, he traveled to Phoenix to train as a peer support mentor but didn’t have anywhere to go. 

“I stayed at Jones Avenue, same place as Audra, for two years at U.S.VETS,” Floyd said. 

Since February 2015, Floyd has been working for the VA to help others, who are like he used to be, become like he is now. 

“Here I am — a felon, alcoholic, drug addict — working for the VA,” Floyd said. 

Beltran and Santos are from the Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University