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A Navy Vet Cleans Queens Instead of Walking Streets


REGINALD WILLIAMS spent four years in the United States Navy. He came home, and like many vets, ended up in the streets. But Mr. Williams is back on patrol -- now toting a gun that shoots cleaning solvents.

On a recent morning, the vet and his crew of two are summoned to clean a distribution warehouse at 31st Street in Long Island City, Queens, that has been ''bombed'' with graffiti by marauding neighborhood teens.

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''I've started to develop into a productive person,'' Williams says proudly as he sprays the smeared brick wall.

The En-Graffiti cleaning service is an encouraging but rare success story among the desperate tales of many homeless vets.

Despite increased spending by the Clinton administration, homeless vets constitute the biggest single group living on the streets of American cities. One-third of all homeless men are veterans, according to the Department of Veteran Affairs (VA).

On any given day, the VA estimates there are 250,000 vets living on the streets or in shelters. In New York City, that means about 2,000 homeless vets are sleeping in city shelters each night.

Nationally, about 50 percent of the homeless veterans are Vietnam era vets. And an increasing number of homeless women -- 6 percent -- are vets.

The homeless veteran problem has yet to show signs of diminishing despite a boost in VA spending on the homeless to $77 million -- more than double the amount spent in 1992.

Over the past year, the VA has established four new Comprehensive Homeless Centers, eight new programs for the homeless mentally ill, and two new places for temporary in-patient treatment. The VA is also providing low-interest loans for nonprofit groups to provide transitional housing assistance to at-risk vets with substance-abuse problems.

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The rise in spending is the result of special attention given to the problem by VA Secretary Jesse Brown. Last year, Mr. Brown held a Homeless Veterans Summit, which drew 2,500 people involved in helping the vets.

To Brown, a former Marine who saw heavy combat in Vietnam, finding ways to help the homeless is a ''personal challenge.''

After coming back from Vietnam, Brown recalls seeing one of his combat buddies walking the streets of Chicago in a daze. He later tried to find the man to help him. ''He left quite an impression,'' recalls Brown, who never could reach the individual.

Despite the VA's increased efforts, veterans groups are critical. ''The VA, in their 11th hour of understanding, is coming up with an ineffective approach,'' says Ned Jaros of the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans, a Washington interest group.

Mr. Jaros says the VA spends a lot of money for mixed results. ''If we allowed more responsibility and better funding for community-based groups, we would get better results,'' he says.

Brown replies that he does not ''totally disagree'' with the criticism. ''I don't believe anyone has all the answers, that's why I initiated the summit,'' he says.

Making positive changes for veterans is not easy. They often have a long history of alcohol and drug abuse. Many have been in and out of several rehabilitation programs. And, many combat veterans are still recovering mentally from their tours in Vietnam or the Persian Gulf.

Veterans groups believe it is important to involve as many elements of a community in the rehabilitation process.

The graffiti removal concept began with Emory Jackson, the president of We Care About New York Inc., a nonprofit organization that fights litter in the city. ''I've had this proposal around for a number of years,'' Mr. Jackson says. Last year, he took the idea to Church & Dwight Co., the manufacturer of Arm & Hammer baking soda. Church & Dwight produces a graffiti cleaning system called Armex, which they agreed to donate.

Once Jackson had the equipment, he went to the Queens Borough president, Claire Shulman, an advocate of cleaning up the borough. Ms. Shulman agreed to supply the crew with a van.

Then Jackson went to the Salvation Army veterans' shelter. Mr. Williams was there as a result of what he calls ''some bad social habits,'' which had left him homeless and jobless. While living at the shelter, he took business classes at a local community college. Williams leaped at the chance to begin the graffiti business.

Although it's a nonprofit business, Jackson says the plan is to spin it off as a commercial venture. ''This could easily become a model for other cities,'' Jackson says.

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