Helping Homeless Veterans: Getting veterans back on their feet
According to the 2016 Annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress (AHAR)*, on any single night in 2016, more than 39,000 veterans were homeless in the U.S. nationwide.
In the state of Nebraska according to the same study, the rate of homeless veterans was at 3.7 percent, which was one of the lowest in the country, but caseworkers in central Nebraska say that number is increasing.
"We meet monthly with the Vet Set program and we had numbers that were more people moving from out of state, [they] were moving to the state of Nebraska and I believe it's because of those reasons where Nebraska is getting faster to process their benefits and those kinds of things," said Kristen Yonker with Central Nebraska Community Action Partnership (CNCAP).
Although homeless individuals are more visible in bigger cities such as Lincoln and Omaha, they say they can also be found in central Nebraska.
“I know a lot of people think that because it’s considered rural that we don’t have as many panhandlers as say the bigger cities do, but we do see them. I think everybody here in town has seen panhandlers from time to time and sometimes they are vets, sometimes they are not,” says Dena Hawkes, SSVF Coordinator for CNCAP.
Alton Scott is 54 years old and a U.S. Army veteran who has been homeless since 1990, traveling from state to state after a general honorable discharge.
"They went and put their life on the line for our country and then came home and they felt abandoned," said Scott, as he talks about the conversations he had with Vietnam veterans he encountered living on the streets.
He talks about the challenges he experienced in different parts of the country.
"Down in Florida, one of the things they would do, they got a lot of homeless bashing down there. They wait until you go to sleep and they come by and they hit you with Coca–Cola cans," said Scott. “Two people got set on fire, one person got – they poured gas on him and set him on fire. One got a cinder block thrown at his head; it’s very dangerous being on the streets.
He says the perception he got from people that walked by him at times was indifference, “They see you, but at the same time you are not there, because they don’t believe that they can actually help you, so they just don’t see you.”
He says that what is hurting homeless veterans is when people aren’t able to distinguish from a real veteran and someone who pretends to be.
“What hurts the homeless vet is, they used to have ‘stand downs,’ and people go and they get military gear and not all of them are veterans because ‘stand down’ is open to everybody. They get all this military stuff and people see them walking around thinking that they are a veteran and they are not,” explains Scott.
Yonker says if you see someone holding a sign that says that they are a veteran, simply go up to them and ask questions and direct them to local agencies in the area.
“Sometimes they have an ID, there’s like a little star on there that will tell you they are a veteran,” says Yonker. “Talk with them, especially if it is a mental illness and you know, find local resources, study up on it first that way when you do approach them you have those resources at hand and can give it to them, because you might not see that veteran again.”
Alton Scott is one of the nine in ten veterans who experienced homelessness according to the AHAR report.
But why is this happening to America’s heroes? Yonker says it has a lot to do with many of the issues veterans are facing, one of which is mental illness.
"Most severe is probably the mental illness that is going on with our veterans. Veterans that get out and they start experiencing PTSD or the worst case scenario that right now we have, a schizophrenic affected veteran,” said Yonker.
Alton is one of her clients who suffers from schizophrenia, he describes his illness as unpredictable.
"I'm at a stage in my mental illness where it's very severe. I have what you might call walking blackouts,” explains Scott. “There is no consistency for me because every day I wake up; I wake up to a new part of what's going on with me. I never know how it's going to come at me, I never know how strong it's going to come at me, or how long it's going to come at me."
Blackouts have affected not only his mental health, but job opportunities and a chance at a stable life.
"Once you lose your humanity it's hard to get it back. And how do we lose our humanity? We get separated from society because we are social creatures, so we have to be a part of a group and when you can't be a part of a group, it does something to you mentally," said Scott.
As he reflects on his life and his struggles with mental illness, he thinks of his family - says he’s glad his children didn’t join the army.
“Fortunately both my sons are smart, they didn’t do it, thank God for that. Because right now it’s a real chaotic time in the world and they might get the misfortune of being sent to some place where they may or may not come back. And at least I know one thing – I know that they are here, that they are in Florida; they may be struggling and they may not, but that’s better than having them acquire something they didn’t have from birth.”
The primary goal for case workers with CNCAP and Supportive Services for Veterans and Families (SSVF) is to get veterans off the streets and back on their feet.
"The way our program is set up, it is a housing first program, so they actually find their own housing, when like I mentioned before sometimes affordable housing is hard to come by, it can be difficult," said Hawkes.
The program covers 62 counties in central and western Nebraska. With most case workers being veterans themselves or spouses of veterans.
Finding affordable housing is a challenge, but finding shelters that are able to take them in can also be challenging.
“In Lincoln we have a couple shelters over there, we’ve got – there’s more beds allowed for emergency shelters that what there are here in Grand Island,” says Hawkes.
Leaving many homeless individuals out on the street.
"The whole experience is more about the nonexistence of functioning facilities and without functioning facilities like this facility functions, because at the heart of it is a true desire to see somebody get back into society," said Scott.
Scott is currently staying at the Connection Center in North Platte, where they have dormitory style rooms and individuals don't have to wait until 5 to check in.
“The services here do work; I must say that. They don’t just tell you like a lot of places I’ve been. They tell you here is what we can do if you wait 30 days, 90 days, 100 days; and I find that one of the things I do like about Nebraska is that they are pretty old school – if they tell you they are going to do something, they are going to do it,” says Scott.
He says there are still so much to be done to continue helping veterans in his situation who are homeless, but he says a lot of it has to do with funding.
“There are so many things that need to be done, but can’t be done because you just can’t get the funding, you can’t get the assistance, you can’t get the aid and the community to see that this really isn’t a homeless shelter, this is more of a place where people can reenter society,” he says referring to the Connection Center.
But regardless of the struggles he’s been through and is currently going through, he says he has to have a positive outlook on life.
“Oh my future is bright. I’m on my way to some very good things, some very good things, some very interesting things right here in the small town of North Platte,” he says. “It may be small, but there’s some big opportunities here, you can believe that because since I’ve been here, even though I had a setback, I think we are still doing pretty good.”
On Wednesday, hear the story of Ryan Kaufman, a U.S. Army veteran who was diagnosed with PTSD and was homeless for most of his 20’s, but was able to get out of homelessness.
Here is what you can expect:
"I remember walking into that homeless shelter and I remember thinking to myself: a year ago you were part of the world's greatest machine – United States Army, you could occupy foreign republics and institute democracy, and today you don't know where you are going to get your next meal," said Ryan Kaufman.
For more information on services for veterans in central and western Nebraska call Supportive Services for Veterans and Families at (308) 385-5500.
*The 2016 Annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress: Pages 54-61 in report