You may face the dilemma around Carmichael every day: a man is standing on the sidewalk with a cardboard sign as you're waiting for the light to change that reads "Homeless veteran. Please help. God bless."
You want to help, but you don't want to buy this man his next beer. Is there such a thing as "constructive panhandling"?
The United States Mission is a federal non-profit organization operating a handful of transitional houses throughout the West Coast and Hawaii.
In California, these houses can be found in Los Angeles, San Diego, San Jose, and here in Carmichael, at 5809 Sutter Ave.
"Most of our residents are referred to us by social agencies," explains program administrator Jack Scarry. "This is transitional living for them."
Often, the transition is from prison. Sometimes, it's from a rehab clinic. Other times, it's from a waiting list for a rehab clinic.
"We're not dealing with quiet boys," Scarry said. "These people have had some problems - usually drugs and alcohol. But we don't take any child molesters here. We don't take anyone with a violent past."
About 90 percent of the program's residents are veterans. For reasons of privacy, the house can only accommodate men, although other of the Mission's California locations are equipped to house both men and women.
"The residents do door-to-door fundraising," explains Scarry. "That's our only source of income. We take no money from the government."
Four hours a day, six days a week, the residents knock on doors, tell their stories, and request donations for the Mission. They carry with them a binder of documents demonstrating their legal right to solicit donations. They also describe the organization and how it operates.
The United States Mission provides its residents with food, shelter and the opportunity to earn money without the option of squandering it.
Roughly half the donations go to pay the program's expenses: rent, utilities, food.
"It costs well over $4,000 a month to run this house," explains Scarry. "The rent alone is $1,750."
And the rest of the money?
"The money they earn is theirs," explains Scarry. "But we take roughly 80 percent of it and hold it for them until they're ready to transition to their own place. So they can't spend it on drugs and alcohol."
According to Scarry, residents who take their work seriously can save a couple of thousand dollars in four to six weeks.
After the first thirty days in the program, the residents begin their search for long-term employment.
"Our motto is, we give you a hand up, not a hand out," says Scarry. "You have until 2 p.m. every day for job interviews. We do your resumés for you."
One problem, he said, is that "Some of these guys haven't paid their taxes in four or five years. So they don't want a job, because as soon as they get one, their salaries get attached."
So one of the tasks of the Mission is to help these men "get right" with the government.
"The IRS has a thing called 'offer and compromise,' Scarry said. "You can make them an offer on the money you owe, provided it's for more than your assets"
"These guys have no assets," he said. "They can arrange to pay five cents on the dollar. In six to eight weeks, they're clean on their federal taxes."
Negotiating with the State of California's Franchise Tax Board is far more difficult.
"With the state, you literally have to declare bankruptcy," says Scarry. "But we help them do their bankruptcy, and then they're done. They've cleaned that up."
"They use us to get back on their feet - to save some money, to get a job," he said. "And that's what we want them to do. This is a roof over your head, it's wonderful food, it's heat, it's utilities paid. But it's still community living."
And community living comes with community rules.
"During the week there's an 11 p.m. curfew," Scarry said. "If you miss curfew, the door is locked. Don't come back until 9 a.m. the next morning. Don't knock on the door. Don't beg. You know the rules."
And the most important rule is sobriety. Scarry says it's a constant battle to keep the men from drinking.
"I have to be on the lookout all the time for drugs and alcohol." he said.
And if someone is using?
"They have to leave the program immediately, because the other residents are frail," Scarry said. "They're trying to quit their addiction and they can't have people around them drinking or doing drugs."
But rules aside, community living here at the Carmichael house is pretty comfortable.
"It's more like a dormitory than a traditional homeless shelter," Scarry said.
The house has four bedrooms and three bathrooms for about 10 residents. There's a well-kept living space furnished with a television, couches, a coffee table and a computer. The rooms are sparse: they are furnished with bunk beds and not much else. These men have few possessions; the house is conspicuously neat.
Like many of the program's residents, Jack Scarry is a Vietnam veteran. But Scarry took a much different path than the men he helps.
"I figured, just draft me; I'm going to do my tour and get out of there," he said. I'm going to go to college."
So when Scarry got out of the army, he pieced together an education on the G.I. Bill. He attended day school and night school.
He refuses to take money for his work with the Mission, because, as he says, "People took care of me because I was a veteran. They put me through school. I had a great job and great career."
Others, he explains, were not so fortunate.
"We get a lot of PTSD here: Post-traumatic stress disorder," Scarry said. "Plus, back in the Vietnam days, you had a lot of kids from unstable backgrounds who
were court-ordered to join the army. Then they found more drugs in Vietnam than they had back home."
Not all of the residents suffer from addiction.
"There was one kid," Scarry remembers, "who was maybe 27 or 28 years old. He had just done three tours of duty in Iraq. Then he got back home and found his wife had left him and cleaned out his bank account. He was a mess. Living on the streets. He was in the program about six months, got a job and now he's back on his feet."
Scarry began volunteering for the Mission about 10 years ago.
"I was in the oil and gas business," he said. "My boss was a fabulous guy - one of my closest friends. Then he got divorced. He hit to drinking, and then he hit to drugs. The company fired him.
"This was a successful guy," emphasizes Scarry. "It can happen to anybody."
Until then, Scarry had never heard of the Mission.
"But this organization - the United States Mission - took my old boss in," he said. "It took a couple of years, but he straightened himself out. His old company hired him back and he retired as national sales manager."
After that, Scarry's boss dedicated his life to the organization. So when Scarry was getting ready to retire, his boss told him, "Jack, I want you to volunteer for the US Mission."
At first, Scarry refused. He wanted to volunteer for an organization dedicated to veterans. But his former boss said, "Why don't you see if you can put the 'veteran's touch' to this organization?'"
So he did.
One such veteran is John, the house manager. John, who declined to give his last name, does not solicit door-to-door donations, but instead does all the cooking and cleaning for the house. For this, he is paid a small allowance of $125 a week.
"Some people might ask me 'Why do you want to do all that work for $125?" John said. "Well, the way I look at it, the work I do goes towards paying my room and board."
"I'm able to save $500 a month by living here," he said. "If I had a full-time job, an apartment, and was paying all my bills, I'd be hard-pressed to save $500 a month, especially in this economy."
Eventually, John says, he'd like to go back to his old job driving big rig trucks.
"For someone like John, this program is perfect," says Scarry. "He's got a long range goal and he's saving money to get towards that goal."
John said he's glad to be at the Mission.
"If I wasn't here, I don't know where else I'd be," he said. "I put good food on the table, keep a clean house. I hope that because of what I do, everybody can go out each day cheery, alert, and full of energy when they collect their donations."
So the next time you see the homeless vet on the street corner, if you want to help - but if you're afraid to help - then consider this:
United States Mission
P.O. BOX 945
Carmichael, CA 95609
You can visit their website at http://usmission.org/