March 19, 2015 at 12:38 pm EDT | by Lateefah Williams
Gay Iraq war vet: From homeless to activist
Eric Perez, gay news, Washington Blade

Eric Perez, pictured with his God-sister, spent a year and a half on the streets of Washington. (Photo courtesy of Perez)

Editor’s note: This is part three of a four-part series on LGBT homelessness.

Eric Perez, 27, has lived in D.C. for the past six years. Despite risking his life protecting our country in Iraq, by 2010, he found himself sleeping in alleys in the city.  Eric joined the U.S. Army at age 19. By 20, the Bronx native and first generation American was serving a 13-month tour in Iraq as a military police officer. Eric served during the time that “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” which prohibited gays and lesbians from openly serving in the military, was law. Thus, there were no formal protections for LGBT service members.

“I was attacked by one of my NCO’s [noncommissioned officers] and when I followed up with my company, they didn’t do anything about it,” Perez said. “During my tour in Iraq, I was seeing a therapist because of my issues with early onset PTSD.” His therapist knew that he was gay and was supportive. “The clinical staff is much more progressive than other job classifications in the military. They kept it hidden from my unit. I was out to my therapist and out to my platoon. My platoon was supportive, but the rest of the company wasn’t.”

“Once I got back to the U.S., I decided to cut all ties to the military. I had a hard time adjusting. My parents didn’t understand PTSD [post traumatic stress disorder] and they were getting divorced, so I didn’t have much support. My mom and I get along well, but she is an immigrant from El Salvador, so she doesn’t understand mental health concerns, especially in an LGBT person.”

Perez and his sister decided to move to D.C. Upon arriving, he obtained a position in the restaurant industry. He worked a variety of positions, including as a bartender, host, server and dishwasher.

“Making minimum wage and depending on tips is not as reliable as one would hope,” he said. He started drinking heavily to cope with his PTSD issues. There were four people staying in a one-bedroom apartment. His sister “eventually got exhausted from my heavy drinking and being a little depressed, so she said she couldn’t keep helping me,” Perez said.

He did not make enough money working in the restaurant industry to afford an apartment, so after moving out of the one-bedroom apartment, Perez slept on the streets. “I would go into an alleyway and sleep there.” Other times, he would “go behind some of the stores closed in Dupont Circle and try to get some sleep” or “find a random hookup at a bar. When I could afford it, I would get a cheap motel. I was in Iraq, so I knew how to survive.”

Eric continued to work the entire year and a half that he was homeless. He did not tell people about his living situation. “Bartenders would ask because I would stay a period on their couch. People kind of knew. It’s never something I would share with people. I did create relationships with guys just to make sure I had a place to sleep.”

At times, he would stay with his uncle. There were six people staying in a two-bedroom unit and it was full of bedbugs. When I slept upstairs, I would show up to work covered in bites. I would cover myself in [rubbing] alcohol and pretend nothing happened.” He decided he was better off staying in the basement. “I slept on a chair and covered myself in plastic.”

While staying at his uncle’s place, Perez met a friend of his uncle’s, who was also staying there. The two of them moved to a one-bedroom apartment in Fort Totten. He paid $200 a month for his portion of the rent. He worked multiple jobs and he and his roommate were eventually able to get a two-bedroom apartment in the Georgia Avenue/Petworth area.

After moving to Petworth, Eric met and began dating his boyfriend Scott, who he has now been with for more than two years. Eric and Scott now live in Brightwood Park.  “My boyfriend made me realize that my military experience was valuable. He pushed me and I started getting benefits from Whitman-Walker. I started picking myself up more. I began working on my resume, speaking out and getting more involved in the community. That is something that I think all veterans should do.”

Perez started looking for new employment through the D.C. Department of Employment Services and through online resources. After sending out numerous resumes, he “found a job on Craigslist that described everything I’ve been through.” He applied for the position at Helping Our Brothers and Sisters (HOBS), which provides direct service and financial assistance to LGBT veterans, service members and those suffering from PTSD. The executive director reached out to him, interviewed him and hired him as an executive assistant. He also “did a lot of direct service work” for HOBS.

HOBS ran out of funding for his position, so he began working at the DC Center for the LGBT Community in May 2014. In his current position with the DC Center, Perez coordinates services for LGBT veterans and the LGBT Latino Task Force.

“I only make $625 every two weeks, but I’m doing something that I’m very passionate about and that causes me to be very immersed in the job and in the community.”

His position, which is funded through an AmeriCorps grant, ends this May. He will then continue to work with the DC Center part-time through another grant from Brother Help Thyself and the Mayor’s Office on Latino Affairs. He was recently elected as an officer with the Latino GLBT History Project.

 

Lateefah Williams’ column ‘Life in the Intersection’ focuses on the intersection of race, gender and sexual orientation. Reach her at lateefah_williams@msn.com or @lateefah4DC

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