A Link to Ending Veteran Homelessness (Part 1)
By Thom Wilborn
Homeless veteran Steven Rivera serves up chow at the Fox Hole Café at the Lyons VA Medical Center Campus in Lyons, N.J.
Wandering the gang-controlled, drug-infested streets of East Orange, N.J., Steven Rivera searched for a safe place to sleep and food to eat. His life had changed starkly since he served in Iraq and Afghanistan making sure Special Forces and SEAL teams had the food necessary to accomplish their clandestine missions.
Rivera was 17 when he enlisted in the Navy in 1997. During his service, he logged two tours each in Iraq and Afghanistan. After more than nine years, he honorably left the service only to suffer as mental illness and addiction began taking control of his life.
“I was homeless in East Orange,” Rivera remembered. “I was waiting for a bed somewhere. I was in the VA hospital but left. The VA continuously denied my disability claim, even though DAV kept fighting for me.” Being lost in the system made life worse for him. “I had an emotional breakdown and went on the streets.”
“The streets are unforgiving, relentless and dangerous,” Rivera said. “But I believed there was a life beyond being homeless, and there is.”
A cousin led Rivera to Community Hope in Parsippany, N.J., which, with the support of the DAV Charitable Service Trust, helps restore hope to homeless veterans and others. The residential facility has won national acclaim as a model program which supports more than 300 people each day as they recover from mental illness and addiction.
Rivera began his recovery in a building adjacent to the VA medical center under the care of VA mental health experts. He later moved into a nearby domiciliary for homeless veterans.
“I was destitute until entering a VA short-term residential and recovery program,” Rivera said. As part of Community Hope’s Hope for Veterans Program, he worked at an on-campus café. “The program is very aggressive and requires that you are clean from drugs and alcohol,” he said. “They gave me the tools I needed to live by and to be productive. If it wasn’t for Community Hope and DAV, I don’t know where I would be.”
The Hope for Veterans Program provides legal services for homeless veterans who need to resolve issues that would impede their ability to become self-sufficient. It also has a partnership with legal firms to provide pro bono services and supports veterans justice initiatives.
Rivera also praised the VA for its support. “The health care is great,” he said, citing the VA’s policy of giving five years of free health care to post-9/11 veterans. The experience has led him to urge other homeless veterans to reach out to the VA to make their lives better.
“I am on the road to success,” he insisted. “Thanks to God for helping me out, and DAV and the VA. My family has seen me come a long way, and they are proud of me, as I am proud of myself.”
“Steven is an example of the purpose of the Charitable Service Trust, our support for homeless veteran agencies and the VA’s program to end homelessness for veterans,” said Trust Chairman Richard E. Marbes. “Steven was overjoyed when he spoke to DAV Magazine because that day he had been accepted to college and is continuing his journey to becoming a productive veteran.”
Community Hope is a Trust grant recipient for its programs to support homeless veterans providing transitional housing, recovery services and permanent housing placement for those recovering from serious mental illness and substance abuse. Its Hope for Veterans Program was developed in partnership with the Lyons, N.J., VA medical center.
“The Charitable Service Trust is crucial to our work,” said Community Hope Chief Executive Officer Michael Armstrong. “We get funds from VA, but often the funding doesn’t cover the actual cost of the program. Anything that helps us cover that deficit allows us to do more to help homeless veterans.”
“You know, it’s a tremendous feeling to help homeless veterans,” Armstrong acknowledged. “It is nice to see people turn their lives around. People can change, but with support and motivation, they have the ability to change.”
“The Trust has been a tremendous sponsor and partner over the years,” said Armstrong. “We do noble work, and we’re helping people change. I thank DAV and the Trust and we certainly appreciate their support.”
“The DAV Charitable Service Trust is a terrific ally,” said VA Homeless Veterans Initiative Office Acting Executive Director Peter Dougherty. “We can’t do it alone—end homeless veterans by 2015. It only works if it is a collaborative enterprise.”
“Some VA homeless veteran programs require matching funds—some need 35 percent to come from somewhere else,” he said.
Armstrong’s concern is the newest generation of homeless veterans. “We’re just now seeing young veterans,” he said. “I think we’ll see another tidal wave like after Vietnam. It takes a while for conditions to surface.”
“My concern with Iraq and Afghanistan veterans is they have had multiple tours,” Armstrong said. “With this group, because of multiple tours, I think homeless veterans are going to be a real big issue and more traumatic than Vietnam veterans.”
He’s also concerned by the increasing number of homeless women veterans. “It’s complicated by the effects of military sexual trauma,” he explained. “The VA is developing special programs for their special needs. Women and a lot of veterans we’re seeing have children. They are a little older than previous generations of veterans and have family needs.”
Dougherty said the VA recognizes the needs of women veterans, especially since many have served in combat. “The VA has not been accessible for health care for women,” he admitted. “As we are getting better with their health care, we’ll see women veterans in significant numbers, especially those with children. The VA is working in a more holistic way, supporting all service members.”
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