Janel Perez

Photo: Sam Comen

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Janel Perez: Taking It to the Streets

Janel Perez doesn't do scrubs. Out on L.A.'s sidewalks, the nurse practitioner opts for discount-store jeans and New Balance sneakers to better blend in among the homeless veterans she tends. Her bag of tricks is a canvas backpack that's like a portable clinic, with a blood pressure cuff, needles, stethoscope, thermometer, bandages, and syringes filled with vaccines for influenza and hep A.

Last year there were more than 40,000 homeless veterans in the U.S., 29 percent of them living in California. In 2011, Perez helped launch a mobile medical team to scour L.A. for these vets and offer them healthcare and a place to live. That pilot program has evolved into a partnership between the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing that serves 6,000 veterans per year, providing checkups, first aid, mental health counseling, and social services, sometimes right there under the freeway.

Many homeless vets wrestle with mental illness and substance abuse, and have developed PTSD from military service or the violence of the streets. They're suspicious of anyone telling them what to do. When Perez first encounters a potential patient, she simply says she's there to help: "We're not asking them to change or get sober first." If they're not interested in talking, she'll come back another day, maybe with a sandwich, and keep checking in every week or so. With the most distrustful vets, months might pass before they're comfortable enough to even let her take their blood pressure.

Perez draws on an endless supply of patience. That's how she won over one air force veteran in his 70s who had lived on the streets for more than two decades. With a lot of nudging, the team was able to persuade him to move into housing, but he refused anything beyond a roof over his head—no furniture, no electricity, no medical care for his schizophrenia. Once a week, Perez would visit him at home, where they'd sit on the floor and chat for an hour about his time stationed in Morocco in the 1960s and his delusions that he was a warrior out to save Santa Monica from destruction.

After four visits, Perez felt emboldened to bring up the E word: "So how about we turn on the electricity?" There was a pause. "Okay," the man said. And then: okay to a bed, to a table, to psychiatric treatment. "To see him now on the medication he needs, going to the grocery store and library, communicating with his sister," says Perez, "shows me we made a huge difference in his life. All those hours of listening were worth it."

—Rachel Rabkin Peachman