Perspectives on veteran homelessness

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In recognition of May’s designation as Military Appreciation Month, I’d like to offer some insights into a challenge that some military veterans struggle with: Homelessness.

I am the Veteran Outreach Advocate at Willis Dady Homeless Services, where one of our programs is Supportive Services for Veteran Families. I am joined by two Veteran Case Managers and we carry out our work in partnership with Operation Home, a program funded by HACAP and the VA.

In my role, I meet people from different sectors of our community, military as well as civilian. There’s often an element of surprise when we talk about veteran homelessness. How does a vet become homeless?

Well, there are many factors that lead to homelessness among veterans and no situation is identical.

The main cause of homelessness for anyone is the inability to pay rent or mortgage. A job loss, for instance, leads to eviction and the vet has nowhere to go. And he or she needs a job.

Unemployment and homelessness – it’s one of those chicken or egg things. You can’t pay for rent without a job. You can’t get a job without an address.

That’s where we can help. Our work with Operation Home follows the principals of Housing First: Relieve the trauma of homelessness as soon as possible through emergency shelter, case management and rental assistance for rapid re-housing. With housing in place (and an address), the vet can work on those other barriers to stability, such as finding a good job.

Another factor contributing to homelessness is substance abuse. This leads to job loss. Substance abuse often stems from mental health conditions such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. PTSD and traumatic brain injury are prevalent among veterans who experienced combat and makes it difficult to obtain and keep employment and to maintain normal family and work relationships. Abusing alcohol and drugs are forms of self-medication.

It should be noted that substance abuse and PTSD are prevalent among female veterans who were sexually assaulted. Female as well as male veterans experience PTSD.

Substance abuse and PTSD or other mental health disorders strain family relationships, which often leads to the vet being thrown out of the house and into homelessness.

One or more of these factors make it difficult for veterans to find the help they need. Even asking for help can be difficult for some vets. That’s why we reach out to men and women living on the streets to help them obtain housing. Stable housing is the first step on their road to recovery.

For single men and families, this help often begins with a stay at the Willis Dady Shelter. Even if all shelter beds are full, Willis Dady will accommodate veterans by pulling out an extra cot.

Once a vet is connected with Willis Dady, our staff help them access vital services such as job training, budget counseling, substance abuse treatment and mental health counseling. The Operation Home program provides help paying for rent along with veteran-specific case management.

Let me give you a recent example of Donnie. Last winter, he was living in a tiny storage unit but had run out of propane that he was using for heat. We got him into shelter and soon housed in an apartment. A couple months after this, during a follow-up appointment with our veteran case manager, Donnie asked to be referred for counseling. He was ready to address the childhood trauma, severe PTSD and anxiety that had crippled him for many years.

We connected Donnie to community resources and he is still stably housed. With a secure place to lay his head, Donnie could step out further on his road to recovery.

If you know a veteran struggling with to maintain housing stability, urge him or her to contact Willis Dady at (319) 362-7555.

• Mark Brown is a veteran outreach advocate at Willis Dady Homeless Services. Operation Home is funded by the VA and the Hawkeye Area Community Action Program (HACAP).

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