Andrew Price arose from his bunk bed at Central Union Mission yesterday morning at 4:30 and went downstairs to read the Bible while the home was still quiet. It was a special day: Normally, homeless men at the mission in Northwest Washington are required to leave for the day by 7 a.m., but yesterday was Veterans Day, and all those who had served were invited for a luncheon.
Price, 72, served in the Navy during World War II and the Korean War, and as a homeless veteran, he was hardly alone. On any given night, about one-third of the 100 or more men who stay at the shelter at 14th and R streets are veterans.
About two dozen of them gathered yesterday for the lunch in their honor. Some wore ties, some wore dirty T-shirts. They ranged in age from their twenties to their seventies. And one by one they stood to introduce themselves and proudly describe their service. They came from every branch of the military and had fought in every major American conflict of the last half-century: World War II, Korea, Vietnam, the Persian Gulf War.
What they had in common was that they had served the nation and now make their home in a mission.
"All of you are due the honor that this nation offers on this day," Maj. Gen. Gaylord T. Gunhus, Army chief of chaplains, said during the benediction.
The number of veterans at Central Union Mission is consistent with nationwide figures showing that nearly one in three men seeking shelter is a veteran, according to a survey released Wednesday of 17,000 homeless people.
"Homelessness continues to be a crisis for our nation's veterans," said the Rev. Stephen E. Burger, executive director of the International Union of Gospel Missions, which conducted the survey. "This is a national tragedy."
"Sitting on a park bench feels pretty bad, but for a veteran especially so, figuring out how you got there," said Harold Chaney, 52, who served in the Army in the 1960s and now regularly sleeps at the mission. "There are quite a few of us who fall through the safety net."
The percentage of veterans among the homeless has held steady through 10 years, but this year's survey shows what Burger described as a "shocking" increase in older, Korean War era veterans like Price.
About 16 percent of the homeless veterans served in the Korean War, about double the amount shown in two previous surveys. Moreover, the number of homeless between the ages of 46 and 65 is at a 10-year high, and a full one-third of homeless people are on the streets for the first time, Burger said.
"What we are seeing is a new, older generation of homeless on the streets," he said.
Central Union, a faith-based shelter that has provided emergency and long-term care for homeless men, women and children since 1884, has observed the same phenomenon in recent months.
"The trend had been toward younger men, but now we're seeing older men," said David Treadwell, Central's executive director. "We don't understand why yet."
Treadwell served two tours in Vietnam as an Army infantry officer and was awarded a Silver Star before he left the military in 1987 and turning to ministry work.
"I do feel an obligation to help a fellow veteran," he said. "They certainly have a fair share of the problems we run into."
Few of the veterans at Central Union blame the military, or anyone else, for their problems.
"I feel bad for being here, but it's because of what I did," said Price, a graceful man with a neatly trimmed beard. "It's all put there for you to get. It's up to you how you accomplish it."
Price's life took many turns after he left the Navy in 1963. He separated from his wife, operated a nightclub in Bangkok with his brother, served time in federal prison for drug-related offenses and ended up as a drug and alcohol abuser in Washington, he said.
Price began staying at Central Union about four years ago. "I happened to stumble upon it at my lowest point," he said. "You start out smoking marijuana and then crack and everything, you go down pretty hard."
With Central Union's help, Price said, he has stayed off drugs and alcohol for more than two years. "I'm still here. It's really a blessing. I've been in some really deep holes."
Price has hopes of finding an apartment he can afford.
Yesterday morning, after reading the Bible, eating breakfast and watching some television, Price took an abbreviated version of a long daily walk he makes through Washington, a ritual he credits for his military trimness.
Price walks through parks, visits museums and admires architecture, and he has memorized the schedule of which churches serve lunches on which days. He visits with homeless friends, who call him the general.
Yesterday, with a chill descending on Washington, he avoided going to the war memorials on the Mall, where many other veterans had gathered. "Some of the guys whose names are on the wall, I knew them," he said, referring to servicemen he had known from his home in Pennsylvania. "They were young. It's just so depressing when I go."
The luncheon that followed the walk was pleasant, if bittersweet, for the veterans.
It was the second time Chaney has attended the Veterans Day luncheon. "Last year, I was hoping it would be my last one, unless I was here as a speaker," he said. "Unfortunately, I'm here again. Never say never."
When he rose to speak, Price offered a remembrance for sailors killed during a kamikaze attack in the closing days of World War II. His destroyer, he said, was involved in picking up survivors.
Dave Saunders, 61, a Chevy Chase native who served in the Army in the 1960s, polished off his plate of pork, green beans and candied yams. "That was certainly a most wonderful repast," Saunders told his table mates after finishing. "You know, a lot of people eat like this every day."
CAPTION: Left, Henry Holland, food services chief at Central Union Mission, greets Korean War veteran Andrew Price.
CAPTION: Andrew Price, a homeless Korean War veteran, takes a walk before a special lunch at Central Union Mission.