Some of Iowa's homeless vets missing out on help

Another $2 million coming to Eastern Iowa to assist homeless veterans

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By Thomas Nelson, IowaWatch

Scores of Iowa’s homeless military veterans are missing out on services available to help them because many do not know about the help, suffer from a mental illness that disconnects them from it or simply choose not to participate.

A yearslong effort by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has sharply reduced the number of homeless vets across the nation, but an estimated nearly 200 remain in Iowa.

The homelessness affects not just the veterans themselves, but also their families and friends. Veterans who abruptly lose their income can be end up states away from their families and friends.

“Out there, it’s pretty rough for a homeless veteran because you’re kind of invisible,” Michael Washington, a Marine veteran living in Davenport said. He has been homeless off and on since being discharged in 2011.

Washington, 27, joined the Marine Corps at 19 in 2007 and was stationed in Cherry Point, N.C. He was an aircraft electrical systems technician before leaving the Marines in 2011 with a general discharge under honorable conditions as a private first class.

He has been homeless twice since being discharged and, while he has an apartment now, struggles with anxiety and depression.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development estimated in 2016 there were 170 homeless veterans in Iowa. An exact count is hard to make, though. The HUD count is done only once a year, in January, and covers only four Iowa counties. Some counties count homeless people in other months but focus on all homeless people, not just veterans.

“You know when you signed on the dotted line you said that you were willing to make the ultimate sacrifice,” said U.S. Rep. Dave Loebsack, D-Iowa, formerly a member of the House Armed Forces Committee. “And it’s just shameful that anyone who has done that, who is willing to make that sacrifice, should end up without a home. It just doesn’t make any sense.”

Tuesday, Loebsack announced the VA was sending more than $2 million to three groups in his district that helping homeless veterans.

The money can be used for, among other things, reaching out to vets and their families, seeking VA aid and other public benefits and offering vets temporary help for rent, moving costs and utilities.

About half the grant money — $1.2 million — will go to the Hawkeye Area Community Action Program, which serves Cedar, Johnson, Washington, Benton, Iowa, Jones, Linn, Washington, Black Hawk, Buchanan, Delaware and Dubuque counties;

Veterans do have access to programs and VA benefits that help them transition to civilian life after they leave the military — but the offerings can be confusing, changing in requirements or by name over time.

“There are so many programs available to veterans out there, but veterans don’t know how to access those services or they may not know about those particular organizations,” said U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, a retired National Guard lieutenant colonel who served in a combat zone.

The need to connect with services is critical, especially with mental health being a major concern for vets, especially homeless ones, Ernst said. “There are a lot of programs available. We want to make sure that, of course, those that have earned and deserve those benefits are steered in the right direction,” she told IowaWatch.

Veterans who have experienced a medical crisis, mental illness or addiction find themselves at risk of homelessness.

David Turnbow, 66, a retired Army veteran who served from 1973 to 1992, said the last time his mental health was evaluated was in 1983 when he was in the Army. Once he left the Army, he ignored symptoms of post-traumatic stress syndrome, he said.

Turnbow, who has been homeless off and on since 2002 and who came from Nebraska to Eastern Iowa, said he didn’t seek help until this year.

Before being homeless in 2015 for the third time, Turnbow traveled to New Jersey for the funeral of his daughter and paid the funeral costs and for his travel. “So I really had nothing when I got back here,” he said.

Turnbow said he wasn’t able to take advantage of VA health care and available housing grants until he came to the Shelter House in Iowa City because they weren’t offered anywhere else he lived.

“All of these doorways were opening to help a veteran. Things I didn’t know about, things a lot of other different veterans didn’t know about.”

Turnbow eventually got VA help moving into an apartment.

Sometimes veterans miss out on jobs and end up stranded.

Jarome Thompson, 55, an Army veteran who served from 1979 to 1983 in Germany and San Diego, said he has been homeless three times since leaving the Army and trying to find work.

The third time was in April 2015 in Cedar Rapids. He had traveled from Colorado for work as a trucker that month, but wasn’t hired.

“I’ve been stuck here in Iowa,” he said.

Thompson said he was homeless in Iowa for a week and a half before he was able to get into an apartment in April 2015.

The VA and HUD have partnered to give veterans a HUD-Veterans Affairs supportive housing voucher, or the HUD-VASH voucher, for rental assistance.

Thompson was able to use a voucher after being helped by HACAP.

He still struggled financially because he didn’t have a job.

Dusty Noble, HACAP veteran advocate in Cedar Rapids, was able to help get him on Social Security disability for Thompson’s first payment on May 21.

Thompson has completed safety training for using HACAP’s woodworking machines. He now makes wooden ink pens at Matthew 25 Ministries in Cedar Rapids once a week.

“In the past it’s been lack of jobs,” Thompson said referring to why he’s been homeless. “Now that I have Social Security I don’t have to worry about that.”

• This story was produced by the Iowa Center for Public Affairs Journalism-IowaWatch.org, a non-profit, online news website that collaborates with Iowa news organizations to produce explanatory and investigative reporting.

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