How a nonprofit is turning homeless veterans’ lives around

  • Haisten Willis
  • For the AJC
3:00 p.m Friday, Nov. 3, 2017 Living
For the AJC
Tyler Bowser sits on the picnic tables at the Veterans Empowerment Organization facility in Atlanta. The VEO helped turn Bowser’s life around, and he’s now a full-time VEO ambassador. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC

If you ask 10 people at the Veterans Empowerment Organization (VEO) why so many military veterans end up homeless, you might get 10 different theories as to the reason.

But there’s no denying the problem is pervasive, with veterans almost three times more likely than the general population to end up homeless, and it’s devastating for those involved.

No matter the reason, Atlanta-based VEO is here to help. Founded in 2008 by Frantz Fortune, a Haitian immigrant who made a fortune in real estate and has several military family members, the group does a tremendous amount to help homeless veterans get off the street and back into a functioning civilian life.

“If at any time there was a war, these people would be called in to fight,” said Fortune, who spent more than $300,000 of his own funds launching the program a decade ago. “For them to come back and be homeless, to me that’s nonsense. People say it’s a government issue. It’s not, it’s an everybody issue.”

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Tyler Bowser, an Air Force veteran, talks with residents at the Veterans Empowerment Organization facility in Atlanta. The VEO helps homeless veterans get off the street and back into a functioning civilian life. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC

In fact, VEO doesn’t receive government funding, which means the organization can accept veterans immediately with no questions asked.

Tyler Bowser, 43, knows firsthand the support of VEO. In fact, one could say he’s living proof of its effectiveness. Bowser today is a full-time VEO ambassador and boasts his own office inside the organization’s campus on West Lake Avenue. That’s a long way and a lot of work from where he was just one year ago.

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Tyler Bowser’s Air Force basic training portrait, January 1997. CONTRIBUTED BY TYLER BOWSER

Bowser traces his military roots back through the generations, with World War II and Vietnam veterans on both sides of his family. After moving around a lot during a traditional military brat childhood, his turn came in 1996. Bowser entered the Air Force and served for four years, winning an award in the process after guiding a bus to safety during a freak accident. The award helped propel his career in the technology sector.

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Tyler Bowser, shown in July 2000 on a field deployment at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida, was a satellite and wideband communications journeyman while enlisted. The satellite communications terminal is in the background. CONTRIBUTED BY TYLER BOWSER

Unfortunately, Bowser emerged into civilian life just in time for the infamous dot-com bubble to burst in 2000.

“I was laid off from three jobs in a year,” he said.

Bowser also found adjusting to civilian life difficult. There was none of the camaraderie of the military, the sense of working for a common goal.

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In an awards ceremony in June 1999, Tyler Bowser (right) received an Air Force Commendation Medal for an act of heroism that saved nine airmen’s lives. He received it from Lt. Col. Dan Wiley. CONTRIBUTED BY TYLER BOWSER

School provided temporary relief. Bowser earned an information technology degree from the University of Phoenix in 2003, then landed a job as a Starbucks manager in the Tampa area around the same time. He got married as well, and things seemed to be looking up.

But looking back, the warning signs were apparent. Bowser now knows he was suffering from both alcoholism and undiagnosed bipolar disorder.

Tragedy struck. Bowser and his wife lost two children, the first to an ectopic pregnancy and the second to spinal muscular atrophy at just 18 months of age. The child died on July 29, 2007, and Bowser and his wife split not long afterward.

Working to pick himself up and move on, Bowser got a job selling software, though he was still depressed and drinking daily. Finally, he rejoined the Air Force in search of the stability and camaraderie of military life, serving in Afghanistan from January 2008 through 2011.

There was a defined mission again and the camaraderie he’d missed outside the military, though his relationship with his girlfriend back in Georgia didn’t survive.

Still, when he returned, his career was looking up as Bowser landed what he describes as his dream job working in the oil and gas industry near Houston. That too wasn’t to last, however, as the price of oil plummeted in 2014 and 2015 and some 100,000 jobs were lost.

Bowser came back to Atlanta, where he’d lived previously, in search of an IT job. Instead, the job search began to take a back seat to his depression and drinking.

“Alcohol was the focus of my life,” Bowser said.

He was living in his car, until his car got repossessed. Bowser then enrolled in a program at Fort McPherson for homeless veterans, which involved living in the former Atlanta city jail building. In summer 2016, he found himself outdoors, sitting on a curb drinking beer out of a brown paper bag. He owned four T-shirts, a pair of flip-flops, a few pairs of jeans and pretty much nothing else.

“I was on a freight train to an early death,” he recalls.

The History of Veterans Day

On July 10, Bowser entered alcohol rehab, crediting his faith in God with giving him the strength to fight back. And while at Fort McPherson, he learned of VEO, a private nonprofit in northwest Atlanta.

VEO assigned Bowser a care manager named Vincent Williams and placed him in more palatable living conditions. Visiting VEO’s headquarters, one gets the feeling of entering a small military base. There are a camouflage jeep, fences along the borders, soldier statues and a large American flag situated at the entrance.

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Tyler Bowser, who served in the Air Force in the late 1990s and again from January 2008 through 2011, stands in front of the American flag at the Veterans Empowerment Organization facility. Bowser says his work for the VEO “is the most rewarding job I’ve ever had.” STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC

The place is clean and features a tiered system for re-entering society. First is a shared barracks with pretty strict rules, such as mandatory chores and no television. From there are cheaper apartments ranging from $400 to $475 per month located on campus, and then comes the opportunity to leave the program and live off-site.

The lack of government funding is significant.

“With Veterans Affairs (VA), veterans have to go through a process (to receive benefits),” Fortune said. “But often, a lot of these guys have mental health problems or no family support. We provide housing first before we ask any questions, providing a bridge to support from the VA.”

VEO has helped over 3,000 veterans to date, serving some 35,000 meals per year.

Landscaped grounds line the campus, as do well-kept, if simple, apartments and office buildings. Several local corporations volunteer at VEO, including the Home Depot, Norfolk Southern and the Coca-Cola Co. That said, it isn’t always an easy process for the formerly homeless veterans living there.

“Everybody here is recovering from something,” Bowser said. For some, it’s alcohol, others depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, schizophrenia or something else. Pretty much everyone comes in with money problems.

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Tyler Bowser (right) talks recently with Jon Hoyta, a resident at the Veterans Empowerment Organization facility in Atlanta. The nonprofit receives no government funding, so it can help veterans quickly. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC

Bowser enjoyed the relatively plush living quarters, the support he received and the company of his roommate and the other veterans at VEO while completing alcohol rehab. It feels like a team effort. He initially scraped together some change by donating plasma for $80 per week, then got a break when Fortune bought Bowser some clothes and gave him a chance to share his story with an audience.

The speech went well, eventually leading to a full-time gig as a VEO ambassador. It’s a labor of love for Bowser, who received an offer for an IT job a few months ago and turned it down to remain with the organization.

“This is the most rewarding job I’ve ever had,” he said.

Bowser now owns a car and a condo, enjoys the support of family and friends, has been sober for 15 months, and still gets support from Veterans Affairs as well.

He credits VEO with playing a major role in his turnaround and says the group truly lives up to its motto: “Unconditional Support for Underserved Veterans.”

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