Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Veterans in trouble need more than ceremonies and discounts

My father and mother at my daughter's
wedding -- his last public event before
he died.
When my father died in August, the funeral home director suggested to my mother that a military honor guard attend his memorial service, in recognition of his deployment with the Army in World War II. The two young men did not treat the assignment as routine or strange, as I would imagine it would be, to “intrude” on such a private event for someone you never knew. After the trumpet was sounded and the flag folded, one of them knelt in front of my frail, aging mother, looked her directly in the eye, and in a soft voice, thanked her – and my father – for his service. It was beautiful, and touching, and I was thankful for the recognition of a life well-lived.

Veterans and soldiers still in active duty are frequently honored in ceremonies such as this, and with special discounts at restaurants and theaters. But those small, albeit appreciated, gestures don’t quite seem to synch with the statistics I come across in my position at NeighborWorks America. Consider:

An estimated 13-17 percent of homeless individuals are veterans (a statistic hard to come by, since they are difficult to find, and thus count). No matter what number you choose, it’s far more than their 7-9.5 percent share of the overall adult population. When the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) conducted its last “point-in-time” survey (one night in January, repeated ever year, in more than 3,000 cities and counties), it found 62,619 homeless veterans.

Many veterans who are not homeless are nonetheless “precarious.” Among the estimated 21.8 million veterans in this country, more than 1.5 million spend over half of their income on housing – well above the recommended maximum threshold of 30 percent. A similar number live in poverty.

Among the most recent veterans – 18-24-year-olds returning from Iraq or Afghanistan – unemployment was 30.2 percent in 2011 (compared to 16.1 percent for non-veterans the same age).

According to a recent survey conducted by NeighborWorks America of 1,000 adults, veterans are like the rest of us; 92 percent regard homeownership to be an integral part of what the “American dream” means to them.  To help them (and others) achieve that goal, many members of our network -- as well as the 3,000+ organizations that turn to us for training -- are staffed with counselors that offer coaching on financial management, navigating the home buying process and – for those who find themselves in trouble – mitigating foreclosure. For those 2 million-plus veterans who are struggling to merely survive, however, more focused, “aggressive” assistance is needed.

First challenge: tracking them down

“We spend a lot of time just trying to find these individuals,” explains Jamie Ebaugh, a social worker and director of supportive housing for NeighborWorks member Southwest Solutions in Detroit. “In the military culture, asking for help is often perceived as weakness. In addition, the traditional VA way of operating is for veterans to come to them. And then, in some cases – such as women who have been sexually assaulted during their service [estimated at one in three] – there is a lack of trust.”

Ronnie, who served in the Army for eight
 years and found help adjustingto life at
home again, from Primavera Foundation.
He remains at home with hiswife Denise.
Paul Andrew, director of the Project Action for Vets at Tucson’s Primavera Foundation, another NeighborWorks member, describes similar challenges. To find these often “invisible” individuals, his organization posts ads in bus stops, liquor stores, laundromats and public parks, and deploys outreach workers to look under bridges and comb the “washes” (dry river beds).

Women (about 10 percent of veterans) are a different story, however. “We don’t find them in the washes,” explains Andrew, who was raised by an uncle in the military and whose son was posted to Iraq while in the National Guard. “Women are more likely to live in cars (often with their children) or ‘garage hop,’ sheltering with friends until their welcome is worn out. They are harder to find.”

The root causes of increased homelessness among veterans are complicated as well. Some enter the military from troubled or rootless backgrounds, turning to the service to escape dysfunctional families, find a “direction in life” or as a last resort to finance school or job training. They may not have experience in living and managing their affairs on their own. As reported by Stars and Stripes last month, a new report in the American Journal of Public Health concluded that members of the military are more likely to be targets for predatory lenders as a result.

“Many of them, when they first come out of the service, aren’t good at managing a checkbook, paying bills, negotiating with a landlord…they’ve never had to do that. They enlisted right out of high school,” explains Ebaugh, whose organization – like many other NeighborWorks members – provides coaching in financial management among its services.

Others become physically or mentally disabled during their service, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and substance abuse.

Ebaugh’s own niece is a case in point. “She served in Iraq for four years,” he says. “She came back, got her own place to live in and started a dog-training business. But then the Fourth of July came, with all of the fireworks. The noise triggered her PTSD and she ‘crashed.’ She lost her house. I asked her, ‘why didn’t you call somebody?’ She said she thought she could handle it. I got her into professional help, and now she is doing better. She is seeing a therapist and living out of her business.”

For many veterans, their problems are exacerbated by weak social-support networks, broken down during extended periods of duty, and the fact that military training is not always perceived as transferable to the civilian workforce.

Second challenge: bridging to stability

Among the programs offered by Southwest Solutions is Piquette Square, an apartment project with 150
Joe Roth, a formerly homeless vet now
living and volunteering at Piquette Square.
affordable units where formerly homeless veterans can live as long as they want, as well as receive mental-health counseling, treatment for substance abuse, job training and other support services.

“The need is huge,” says Ebaugh. “Piquette Square was filled the day it opened (in 2010), and if we opened up another one we could fill it again. We estimate there are probably at least 3,000 homeless vets just in the Detroit area.”

Most of the vets Ebaugh and his team serve are from the Vietnam era, in part because there often is a “lag” before serious problems develop.  “At first, returning soldiers turn to family members,” he explains. “It can take a while before PTSD begins to manifest itself, as well as for the vets to exhaust their known resources – including the goodwill of their family and friends. A place like Piquette improves family dynamics significantly, by taking the pressure off. Once they have a home of their own, their families are more willing to re-engage.”

Over the next few years, Ebaugh anticipates seeing more vets from the more recent wars, as those conflicts wind down and more and more of those soldiers try to integrate back in. “We expect to 10,000 returning vets in Michigan alone during the next year,” he says. “The key will be to provide them with supportive services right away, along with the tools they need to find jobs. Employment is the key to preventing homelessness.”

Both Southwest Solutions and Primavera are able to do their work thanks to an escalating commitment by the VA to ending homelessness among veterans, including partnerships with nonprofits at the grassroots level. Three years ago, it launched the Supportive Services for Veteran Families (SSVF) program, in which grants are awarded to private cooperatives and nonprofits such as Primavera and Southwest Solutions to seek out very-low-income veterans to help them and their families transition to permanent housing.

“There are a lot of services available to veterans,” says Andrew. “They just have trouble connecting with them. Navigation can be a nightmare.”

The challenges are daunting, and although Andrew estimates about 15 percent of veterans in the Primavera “system” drop out for reasons that are not always known, dramatic successes are possible. He tells the story of one female veteran who came to Primavera while living with her three children in her car, after seeing one of the organization’s bus stop ads. She had recently lost both her job and home, and was in “deep crisis mode. When you’re in crisis, your ability to plan is nil to none. You have to approach your situation in little pieces, one step at a time.” After a thorough screening, Primavera matched her to stable housing and placed her in a job with a large call center in Tucson. The children were back in school within three months.

Ebaugh agrees, and adds his own keys to successfully helping veterans in perpetual crisis:

  • Remember that they won’t usually come to you. You have to develop a plan to find and engage them. It’s particularly effective to involve the veterans themselves:  “One vet can take you to 10 other vets.”
  • Treat them with dignity. Veterans are very proud. Play to that, rather than making them feel belittled. Seeking help is not a weakness; it’s merely getting the “leg up” you need.
  • Allow vets to teach you too. When they feel comfortable enough with you, they will open up to you with stories that may be heartbreaking, but often very inspiring. 

“Families who know someone who served in the military ‘get it.’ But many others don’t realize how life-changing the experience is. War, and serving in the military itself, changes people in really deep ways, both good and bad.”

Ebaugh is right. I am very fortunate that two years before my father died, I took the time to record an interview with him (using a “home kit” from StoryCorps), in which I asked my dad at length about his stint overseas during the war – why he enlisted, how it changed him, whether he would encourage young people today to join the military. I had never really taken the time before to listen to tales that seemed, as a child, to be “ancient stories that didn’t relate to me.” But once I asked, and listened, I was amazed at his resilience, his insight into the dynamics shaping the world today, and the person who was also my father.

Veterans in trouble deserve more than a day in their honor, or a discount at the movie theater. They need our focused attention and commitment, every day of the year.

Written by Pam Bailey, communications writer for NeighborWorks America. She would love for you to post your own stories and comments!