Written by: Gary Shaheen, Director of Community Based Technical Support Initiatives
President Obama and VA Secretary Shinseki have challenged the nation to end veteran homelessness by 2015. By some estimates, the number of veterans who are homeless has dropped by 24% over the past six years, but according to the most recent HUD Point in Time Estimate, over 60,000 veterans are homeless on any given day. The pathway out of homelessness can be difficult and can take a long time. Rapid access to housing has long been acknowledged as a key to ending veteran homelessness and more recently, rapid access to work as well, together with supportive services. We also know that the pathway into homelessness involves a complex and often inter-related set of precipitators. These include poverty, mental health issues, traumatic experiences, substance abuse, relationship and family disruptions and other factors. New research on the effects of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) and Military Sexual Trauma (MST) among service men and women indicates that these signature wounds of present-day conflicts must be addressed as early as possible in order to prevent veteran homelessness among the newest generation of veterans.
But in our zeal to ensure that our post-9/11 veterans receive the services needed to prevent future homelessness, we should not forget that almost 78% of our nation’s veterans who are homeless are between the ages of 45-64. These veterans of earlier conflicts, particularly those who served their country during the Vietnam War, are still in the primary demographic which is served in veteran homeless assistance programs. Helping these veterans sustain an escape from homelessness includes addressing all of the challenges noted above, compounded by age, health issues and often years spent on the streets or cycling through shelter systems. Yet there is much we can do to ensure that our nation’s strategies to end homelessness are moved as far ‘upstream’ to earlier generations as possible. Here are just three tips that can be used for engaging veterans in conversations and services that can be starting points for helping them exit homelessness:
1) Value the lived experience of recovery and resilience
Homelessness is hard work. Skills for staying alive on the streets and in shelters involve skills that are often not probed when providers conduct program intake assessments. Assessments that help veterans realize that the skills they learned in survival may be transferable to work and other environments, can open the door to new hope and possibilities for long-term recovery. Examples of these types of probing questions can be:
- What skills did you need to survive on the streets every day?
- Can you think about other times these types of skills may come in handy-at a job?
- Who do you know that may have been homeless at some point but now has a home? What did it take for them to make the transition?
2) Make work part of the conversation:
Not every moment is a “job development moment.” When people are in housing crisis, helping them meet their most pressing needs is of primary importance. Including queries about past work experience may not lead immediately to a job, but could lead to renewed hope that having a job can be possible in their lives. Examples of these types of probing questions can be:
- Can you tell me about some of the jobs you had in the past?
- What did you like or dislike about them?
- Would you like to try working at a job again? What can we do to help?
Veterans who have experienced many losses and discouragements and have had long-term experiences with homelessness may not be ready make changes in their lives. Helping veterans to develop motivation for making changes in their living or work situation includes offering low-impact opportunities to see future possibilities for themselves in those roles. Examples of these types of probing questions can be:
- Can you tell me about a time when you struggled to make a positive change and succeeded? What did it take for you to do that?
- I know a vet who served when you served who recently got a job. Would you like to meet him/her during his/her lunch break and hear more about what he/she does and what it took for him/her to get a job?
- A veteran from your era of service just got his/her own apartment. He/she says it’s ok to visit him/her there so you can see what types of housing we have available – would you like to make a ‘no strings attached’ visit?
Ending veteran homelessness is possible. Veterans of earlier eras – who are the majority of our homeless veterans – did not experience the ‘Welcome Home’ that our present-day veterans receive. As we strive to end veteran homelessness, we should make sure that we never forget to honor their service by providing opportunities for a home, a job, and hope for the future that are all keys to ending veteran homelessness.