TOLEDO, Ohio — More than a decade of bad decisions, toxic relationships and sleeping inside garages and vacant apartments had left Army veteran Michael Robertson with thoughts of ending his life.
It wasn't until he was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder that he began seeing a way out. But with no way to afford the upfront costs for his own apartment, he was stuck in a shelter for the homeless three years ago in Houston where he settled after drifting around the country.
That's when a nonprofit organization called Veterans Matter stepped in — one of several groups that fill gaps government agencies can't reach even as they push to end homelessness among veterans.
Since setting out with that goal at the beginning of this decade, the departments of Housing and Urban Development and of Veterans Affairs said in November the number of homeless veterans has dropped by about half to 38,000.
Robertson, who served in the Persian Gulf War, is among the many no longer on the streets. Now, he has a dream of opening a food truck someday as he continues with therapy. "I couldn't imagine any of that or being stable just a few years ago," he said.
The number has dropped under a strategy that brought the two federal departments together to offer homeless veterans assistance with monthly rent and case management and clinical services.
But they can't cover all the needs, said Anthony Love, director of community engagement for the Veterans Health Administration's office for homeless programs. Some nonprofits help the veterans furnish new apartments, buy groceries or find jobs. Many operate in just one community or region, Love said.
Veterans Matter pays for security deposits and the veteran's share of the first month's rent. So far, it has helped 2,600 veterans in 20 states get off the streets. Nine out of 10 remain housed after the first year, the organization said.
"Veterans Matter is one of few with a national scope that will go where the need is," Love said. "They can get a check to a landlord pretty much the same day or within 24 hours."
Founded by Ken Leslie, a former comedian and businessman who was once homeless himself, Veterans Matter began in 2012 after he learned about a few dozen veterans in Toledo who were unable to get a place to stay because each couldn't cover the $700 deposit.
What that often meant was asking veterans to make an appeal to churches and military service organizations, said Shawn Dowling, who works for the VA in Ohio and Michigan.
"It's really hard to admit that because it's so uncomfortable," she said. "It did feel like begging. It was really embarrassing for the guys."
Since then, Veterans Matters has grown state by state with an assist from a list of celebrities, from Katy Perry to Kid Rock.
ZZ Top bassist Dusty Hill was an early supporter who helped take the organization to a national level by bringing it to his home state of Texas. Rocker George Thorogood just released a promotional video a few weeks ago.
The message isn't just about getting a veteran a warm place to stay, Leslie said, it's about changing their lives and giving them hope.
"If it was just about getting them housed, I wouldn't be doing it," he said. "We're targeting veterans who have nowhere to go."
Rodney Larson, who was in the Army during the 1970s, had been in and out of homelessness and found himself without a place to stay last January in his hometown of Cincinnati. He had no idea there were ways to get his own apartment until he met with a veteran services worker.
"Without people who care enough to help us," he said, "a lot of us won't make it."
Solely relying on donations, Veterans Matter has collected and spent nearly $2 million on housing. Funding is limited, and sometimes that means turning down a request, especially in areas where costs have soared, Leslie said.
Much of the money comes from corporate donations along with individuals and veteran service organizations. First Nation Group, a medical device distributor based in Florida, has donated $800,000 since the beginning, getting its employees and suppliers involved, too.
"You can write checks and feel good about giving, but often times you don't really know the outcome," said company president Steve Baugh. "We're sure that a veteran who needs housed today, gets housed."