How Did Caseworker Help Homeless Veteran Get Housed After 12 Years? 'Just Coming Back'

A person sleeps under a light rain on a sidewalk in Los Angeles.
A person sleeps under a light rain on a sidewalk in Los Angeles, Thursday, March 7, 2024. (Damian Dovarganes/AP Photo)

On a Friday morning like any other, Brian Brewer got the news he had been waiting more than 12 years for: He was finally getting housing.

Over the past seven years, the U.S. Marine Corps veteran could usually be found in front of the CVS drugstore in San Luis Obispo, California, on the corner of Marsh and Broad streets, perched on his milk crate with his faithful black Labrador mix, Admiral, nearby.

That Friday morning, however, Brewer left his stomping ground behind for the last time, trading in his milk crate for his new home in Broad Street Place, a newly opened People's Self-Help Housing affordable apartment complex.

"When we were getting ready to leave CVS with all the junk you haul around and the broken carts, I told my daughter, 'Go take it to a dumpster,'" Brewer told The Tribune. "It was just like a godsend -- we couldn't wait."

Brewer said he found his new home over the course of around two years of working with -- and slowly learning to trust -- Nathan Rubinoff, a Community Action Partnership of San Luis Obispo case manager who noticed Brewer at CVS.

Rubinoff said his two years of work with Brewer have shown him how important it is to understand the unique needs of clients who are historically resistant to accepting services.

Brewer "maybe was a little adamant that he didn't want services when we first met," Rubinoff said.

"I just knew that was how he was that day," he said, "and I was just coming back each day and giving him an opportunity, every single time."

How This Vet and His Daughter Became Homeless

Brewer said his experience with homelessness started when his daughter, Kimie, got sick from a genetic disorder called neurofibromatosis when she was 16 years old.

At the onset of his daughter's illness, the pair moved to San Luis Obispo County, where she finished high school.

The pair even obtained housing in Arroyo Grande, but were evicted from the home for owning a dog, Brewer said.

It was a shock having their home pulled out from under their feet while Kimie struggled with the disorder, which can cause seizures related to heat and stress -- conditions that would be further exacerbated by homelessness, Brewer said.

While homeless, Brewer said he fell into bad habits, including using heroin.

"Drug use unchecked leads to not good things -- I guarantee it," Brewer said.

Despite his own drug use, Brewer said he never allowed Kimie to fall into the same patterns he was experiencing.

During this period of his life, Brewer said he was at his most paranoid, taking to carrying a machete for protection. He eventually landed in jail in 2015 for making threats.

As a first-time offender, Brewer did not serve a prison sentence, but spent three years on felony probation.

It was during those three years Brewer and his daughter found their perch outside the CVS, doing what they could to maintain some kind of status quo in their lives.

Brewer said while that spot was good for panhandling and finding food and electricity, it was an even better place to get the social engagement he needed to feel like a human being.

That included a somewhat wholesome misunderstanding with one of his signs. It read, "Spare a nug?" -- a reference to cannabis -- but because his handwriting was messy, some would misread it as asking for a hug, he said.

So he'd give them one back.

"I'm not gonna say, 'No, I meant something else!'" Brewer said. "That negates their kind gesture."

How Do Providers Reach Service-Resistant People?

Though he and his daughter maintained a semi-stable routine while staying outside the CVS, Brewer said he didn't take advantage of services that could have helped him and his daughter get out of homelessness because he either wasn't aware the services existed in the first place or felt uncomfortable using them.

As a veteran, Brewer has the right to use many of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs' services, but did not for many years out of shame.

Despite serving between 1980 and 1984, shortly after graduating high school, Brewer said he didn't feel worthy of using the benefits he earned from his service because he did not see combat.

"Technically, I have an honorable discharge, and I am a veteran, but I didn't earn a lot of the stuff like a lot of veterans did," Brewer said.

Brewer's hesitance isn't uncommon.

Rubinoff said people can become resistant to the idea of working with a service provider such as CAPSLO for a variety of reasons, including having a previous negative experience with a provider or having a general distrust of institutions.

"If I had to give a ballpark number for very first interactions with folks, maybe a little bit less than half don't really want anything to do with services the first time I speak with them," Rubinoff said. "They might not trust me, they might just see me as another person that's coming in and gonna say a bunch of stuff that they don't understand and then leave, and that's why it's really important to just keep coming back and build that trust with them."

Initially, Rubinoff tried to make contact with Brewer every day by offering connections to housing, but quickly moved on from the tactic, he said.

In Brewer's case, a previous negative experience with a rotating overflow shelter program had soured him on services, which made accepting help when offered challenging, Rubinoff said.

"I would sit with him for maybe 10 minutes, bring him a food bag, listen to him, give him some time to just share what his thoughts were, and after a few months of doing that, he just naturally started trusting me," Rubinoff said. "That's only two or three times a week, 10 minutes here or there -- it makes a huge difference."

From there, Rubinoff was able to convince Brewer to go on CalFresh, he said. The food assistance program is often the best "carrot" a caseworker can offer a service-resistant person because it provides immediate, tangible aid and takes something off the individual's plate rather than adding a task to be accomplished, Rubinoff said.

Rubinoff said the next steps involved connecting Brewer to more services, sorting out paperwork and getting him as housing application-ready as possible.

"You really have to dedicate yourself to being an asset for them, where they feel like you're someone that's going to help and not just looking to put their name down on paper and say they did something," Rubinoff said.

Ultimately, Brewer said he was thankful for the way Rubinoff stuck with him on his journey to becoming housed.

"It's been a dream come true," he said. "A miracle, you know?"

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