A veteran now has a home, but he still lives in fear of losing everything again

By Zena Taher

Editor’s note: This story is part of a series looking at housing issues faced by people in Wichita. It is produced by members of the Wichita Journalism Collaborative, a partnership of 11 organizations, including KSN News.

WICHITA, Kan. (KSNW) – The past five years have been tough for veteran Thomas Walker. He’s spent that time falling in and out of homelessness, moving from shelters to couches to different communities, looking for a more stable place to live.

He’s now housed with the help of Passageways, an organization that helps homeless veterans. Having his own place has given him hope, but he’s still living in fear of losing everything.

In his 56 years, Walker has worked many jobs, from a construction equipment operator in the Army to maintenance and repairs on private housing.

But for five years, he’s been without steady employment after an ankle injury left him unable to be on his feet for long periods. The injury led him to leave his job as a mail carrier at the post office.

“I’ve had … four surgeries to repair the peroneal tendon on the right ankle, and every time it’s been unsuccessful, and it has re-tore,” Walker said.

When the steady income went away, so did his housing. He started floating from shelter to shelter.

“Lived in Hutch. Lived in Florida for a little bit. Anywhere I could get a couch for a little bit,” Walker said.

He has battled out of homelessness three or four times now.

“It’s all you can do,” Walker said. “It takes everything out of you, and I don’t know how many more changes I can go through again.”

He now uses housing vouchers to help pay his rent.

The Wichita Housing Authority has a limited number of vouchers to help people pay rent to private landlords. Individuals pay about 30% of their income to the landlord. The rest is paid by the Wichita Housing Authority. Currently, all 3,360 of the city’s vouchers are being used. The waiting list to get one has more than 5,000 people on it.

Walker says finding an apartment in Wichita that accepts the housing vouchers is tough. He finally found one on the west side of town.

After years of housing insecurity, he wonders what he’d do if his apartment complex stopped accepting vouchers.

“I do everything I’m supposed to do, but I mean, if something happened, they’d say they’re going to quit taking it here. I mean, I don’t know,” Walker said. “I don’t know what I’d do.”

He spends part of his days woodworking. It provides a little bit of financial support, about $100 a month. He can work in bursts, so it’s easier on him than full-time physical labor.

Wagon built by Thomas Walker (photo courtesy Thomas Walker)

“I got back problems also, so if I sit down too long, my back starts hurting,” Walker said. “If I stand up too long, then my ankles start hurting.”

Walker has twice applied for Social Security disability benefits and has been denied twice. He sometimes gets financial help from his family.

He currently gets Veterans Affairs disability benefits that total about $110 a month. He’s reapplied to the VA twice to get his percentage upgraded and was denied both times.

“I’m constantly worried about the future,” Walker said. “I mean, when I’m making as little as I am, it wouldn’t take much for it all to go back the way it was.”

The thought of returning to a shelter takes him to a dark place.

“It was just a place to lay my head until I was homeless again,” Walker said. “This actually made me feel like, hey, I’m going to be here for a while, you know. I’m at home.”

Walker says he’s continued to look for employment. He says it’s much more difficult for him to get job interviews now than ten years ago, even though his resume hasn’t changed. He’s hoping to find an opportunity that is less physically demanding or a job that allows him to work from home.

If you’re interested in Wichita’s Housing Choice Voucher Program, you can apply online. The VA also has resources for veterans.