Helping homeless veterans get off the streets feels like work Duane Magee was made to do, and his tireless quest puts him behind the wheel for thousands of miles each year to find them. He is living proof to vets that recovery from homelessness and incarceration is possible because their story is his story, and his quiet mission to assist them led to his nomination for a 2012 Martin Luther King Drum Major for Service Award.
According to a 2011 report from the Department of Veteran's Affairs and the Department of Housing and Urban Development, 67,495 veterans were homeless at the beginning of 2011. Even though the government has committed to lowering the level of homelessness among this group and is making progress, the job can't be done without boots on the ground. That's where Magee comes in.
Magee, an Army veteran, works at California's Loma Linda Medical Center in the Homeless Outreach Program, and is well-known for his ability to spot a veteran among the homeless, even while driving down the street.
Continuing a quest he began after his recovery when he worked with incarcerated veterans, Magee searches the shelters, streets and parks of Riverside and San Bernardino counties for vets who have fallen through the cracks of the system and does everything he can to help them get back on track.
For many of the veterans he meets, a little knowledge goes a long way.
“What really hurt me the most was that I didn't know my VA benefits, “said Magee, speaking about his personal story where he pulled his life together and eventually earned his master's degree in divinity. He said that about 90 percent of homeless vets don't even know what benefits they are entitled to receive. But when they learn, they begin to have hope.
“It takes a little while to get through, but I have the patience to sit with them and talk,” Magee said. Once he breaks down their walls, Magee can get the vets access to health care, counseling, housing, and even reunite them with their families. His tenaciousness and one-on-one attention has touched vets of every generation and from every branch of the military. But he reaches them because he is one of them and can tell veterans why they are important to this country.
“I retell the story to them,” said Magee, noting that sometimes he relates how World War II veterans returned home and the same kind of assistance that was available to them to get an education and housing are available to veterans today. He adds that if they follow the same path, they can help rebuild America, just as those vets did.
Magee speaks modestly about his work and gives credit to other staff members who support his efforts to get these veterans back into the system. And because they help him, he can get back in his VA car and continue looking for more homeless vets.
“I'm out every day – every single day,” he said. “And even on my time off, I'm out there searching.”
The Martin Luther King Drum Majors for Service program gives organizations and groups an opportunity to acknowledge and celebrate those volunteers who perform extraordinary everyday acts of service with reliability and commitment, but who seldom receive recognition. Drum Major awardees receive an award from Corporation for National and Community Service designating that person as a “Drum Major for Service” with the Presidential Volunteer Service Award.