Programs assisting homeless veterans

Hugo Luisetti served in the Army during the Vietnam era, drove a New York City bus for years and on 9/11, when the planes hit the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers, he spent 16 hours helping people escape the terror of that day.

Shongo Raines was in the Navy for more than eight years, some of that time as a “plank owner” or one of the first sailors on the USS George Washington, saying the years he spent in the military were the best years of his life.

Both men ended up homeless, like thousands of other men and women each year across the country, said officials with the federal Department of Veterans Affairs.

They can’t say if the problem of homeless veterans has gotten better since President Barack Obama declared he would end the problem by 2015.

But there are more people to handle outreach programs for the veterans. The key, however, is making sure that veterans know that the programs exist and then following through to take advantage of them, said Karen Vislosky, homeless coordinator at the Van Zandt VA Medical Center.

“All of these veterans have a sense of pride,” she said. “It’s a very hard thing for them to do to come in and ask for help.”

Many veterans initially fall back on the survival skills they’ve learned in the military to try to make it in the world before they realize they need help, said Gregory Van Horn, the compensated work therapy and transitional work experience coordinator at Van Zandt.

A veteran himself, Van Horn works with fellow veterans and helps them learn jobs skills so that they can find permanent jobs on the outside.

He recalled one veteran who refused to come in for help for himself, not admitting that he needed aid until after his dog died, Van Horn said.

“They do whatever they can to survive,” he said.

Both Van Horn and Vislosky stressed that there are programs that can help make life easier for homeless veterans. It starts usually where it happened for Luisetti, who was on the street for a few days after he came to Altoona from South Carolina and no longer could stay with friends.

Luisetti ended up in an emergency shelter run by Family Services. When they found out he was a veteran, they called Van Zandt.

The first interview with a veteran decides what kind of services he or she needs, Vislosky said. The person may need medical care, legal aid, housing help or a combination of services, she said. The veteran may have family members who will also need help, she said.

There could be a variety of issues that may need to be addressed, such as poor credit or substance abuse, but the VA can work through the various issues, she said. For example, there are special HUD Section 8 housing grants that are specifically designated for veterans. There are also paying jobs in Van Zandt that they can give to veterans so that they can start earning money while trying to find a permanent job outside of Van Zandt.

Luisetti, 59, has one of those jobs, which are called compensated work therapy.

“It’s like at 59, I’ve gotten started all over again,” he said. “I knew the VA had programs, but I never thought I qualified for them.”

Luisetti has nothing but praise for the VA and its programs. He said he’s worked all of his life and he never thought he would have been homeless. Doctors have told him he suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder from both helping people on 9/11 and because he was a mile away when the World Trade Center was bombed in 1993.

“I never really thought I had it, but that’s what they tell me. I have had some nightmares [that] when someone gets hurt I can’t do anything,” he said.

Raines said he fell to a low point in his life after the high point of his military career. He had served on a destroyer and on a hospital ship in Bethesda, Md.

“I felt I had choices, but most of my choices weren’t healthy,” he said.

Raines, 41, was on the street for four or five months before he ended up at Van Zandt through various agencies. He is also working in a job with the compensated work therapy office. A native of Pittsburgh, Raines said he would be lost without the VA programs.

“I have met some of the best people here at the VA who’ve really helped me,” he said.

Although nationally the VA says the numbers of homeless veterans are down, Vislosky said it’s hard to tell if that is true in rural areas, because veterans are very good at camouflage. Homeless veterans in a rural area tend to look better because they know where the restrooms are available 24 hours a day so that they can clean up, she said, so they have better hygiene habits.

“I could put 20 people in a room and ask you to pick out the homeless people and you wouldn’t be able to do it,” she said.