People of my political ilk were pretty thrilled, or at least relieved, by the outcome of the last election.
All of us lefties had complaints about the first four years of Barack Obama, but we also spoke of his administration’s many unheralded accomplishments. Here’s one you likely never heard of: the No More Homeless Vets initiative, announced in 2009 by Eric Sinsheki, Secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). click
In this initiative, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) provides rental vouchers, and the VA provides outreach and case management, as well as other services to support people once they are housed. This program is for people with serious mental illness, physical disability or substance abuse history. According to the VA, “Veterans with the most vulnerability are excellent candidates for this program.”
I am a veteran, not of the armed forces, but of forty years of studying, navigating, advocating in, and being subject to government poverty programs. So when I see the words “job training, employment assistance, mental health services, housing assistance,” I am not impressed. I know that all these programs can suffer from eligibility hurdles, peculiar rules, inept staff, and most of all, severe resource limits that let them serve only a small percentage of the people who need them. And they are targeted at people who are the hardest to help. After childhoods of appalling abuse, adulthoods of self-destructive behavior, and for combat veterans, a government-sponsored season in hell, some people will never be what we choose to call self-sufficient.**
Season in Hell
But last year the VA announced that the number of homeless veterans had been reduced 12% from 2010 to 2011. Since 2009 the VA-HUD program had successfully housed 33,597 Veterans in permanent, supportive housing, providing case managers and access to VA health care.
Of course they’re tooting their own horn. The VA blog contains plenty of complaints from veterans who still aren’t getting what they need from the system. click I have no way of evaluating the program on a large scale. But I have seen it succeed here in Gainesville, one person at a time.
For me this initiative is personified by the outreach workers who accompany the Home Van on our weekly campsite rounds. Many homeless vets are discouraged by bureaucracy and especially suspicious of the VA - they will not seek out services. So the VA workers go to the woods to find them. The workers find out what the veterans need - documents, legal assistance, health care, drug treatment, vocational certification - you name it - and come back week after week to move the cases along.
One by one, every month or so, one of the men or women living in the woods tells us, “I’ve got an apartment. I’m moving in next week.” John*** and Deena, both vets, have lived in a tent in the woods at least as long as the HOME Van has been going out. John is reserved, Deena more open. She always had a hug for me when I gave her socks; I’d say 'How’s it going?' and she’d shrug and smile. When she told me they were moving into an apartment, my first thought was ‘Oh no, we won’t see you anymore.’
Mad Mack is a scrawny old vet, a Led Zeppelin fan, who’s been housed for two years. He comes by the HOME Van many evenings just to see his old friends. I’m sure his case manager knows he smokes reefer - he makes no attempt to hide it.
Felipe is a blustering, obnoxious guy, eager to tell anyone who’ll listen why he’s better than ‘those bums.’ Last week he told us he’s about to move into an apartment. I was thrilled, as I had been for all the others. If The Feminist Grandma’s affection were key to being housed, there would be an awful lot more people on the street.
The VA has chosen the right way to help homeless veterans. They work one on one, encourage and nag, help navigate the mazes of different agencies, until finally the veteran has housing. Then they help with the many challenges in transitioning from camping in the woods to living inside.
The HOME Van has long experience with this approach. Our volunteers have helped a few people find housing, and then shored them up in various ways - dealing with bureaucracy, taking them to medical appointments, even managing their money. Though we have way less money than the federal government, we have the advantage of being ruled by our hearts rather than regulations. click
The VA Secretary says, “No one who has served this nation as a veteran should ever be living on the street.” But I hope the No More Homeless Vets initiative will be a model, and we will extend these services to the homeless people who are veterans not of the military, but of a thousand hardships most of us can’t imagine. Some will continue habits that middle-class people simultaneously frown on and indulge in.
But stoned or sober, employed or not, anyone is better off living inside, and the whole community is better off when nobody has to live in the woods.
** None of us is self-sufficient. We depend on family, friends, and an endless array of public benefits: roads, airports, police, libraries, schools, emergency response - that’s just off the top of my head, early in the morning.
*** All names are fake, of course.
I'd love to hear from you! Click "comments," below. Was it wrong to use the 'season in hell' photo?
Next post: December 21 - a rerun