Area groups helping vets to avoid homelessness

Veteran Clint Baker lost his home after a stint in the hospital for a dangerous illness.

He was released, he said, to find that the landlord of the woman he was staying with had kicked him out, and he was still sick.

“Basically, I was out on the street battling a severe infection,” Baker said.

He found a new place that would likely suit his needs, a two-bedroom home, and received a housing voucher from Veterans Affairs to help pay the costs. However, the current tenant “dug in her heels” for several months before moving out.

Baker took up residence in a pop-up camper on her property, braving some cold fall months before he could finally move into the house. His voucher would have expired if he had to wait three more days.

“It was kinda horrific at the time,” Baker said.

Now, about three years later, the Air Force veteran still lives in the same house. He’d like to expand, more room for his son to visit and for his belongings, but it’s a home.

“I can’t say it’s been a Shangri-La. It’s been tight. It’s tight living quarters,” Baker said. “My bed’s in my dining room because my bed’s too big for the upstairs, which is crammed, packed full of stuff. I didn’t want to get rid of everything.”

Homelessness among veterans is an issue that the VA and other veterans groups have been looking to combat. Through Veterans Affairs, the Veterans of Foreign Wars and other local groups, leaders in the veterans community have made it a priority to make sure that housing initiatives and other programs are made available.

In 2009, President Barack Obama made it an imperative that all veterans find homes – he is seeking to end veteran homelessness by 2015, according to the VA’s website.

Samantha Gibson, a homeless coordinator at the Van Zandt VA Medical Center, said many people, both in the public sector and the veterans community, may not be aware that homelessness is an issue for veterans.

“Just in my experience, before I came here [to the hospital], I really didn’t know that homelessness was such a prevalent issue,” Gibson said.

Spreading awareness

Dwayne Anders, chairman of the Pennsylvania VFW State Homeless Veterans Committee, said bringing the issue of homelessness among veterans to the forefront is one of his major concerns.

This is especially true in more rural areas, like Blair County, he said.

“I think one of the biggest problems with the homelessness is awareness,” Anders said. “People in Altoona don’t see it as much like in the bigger cities.”

Fellow veterans, too, may be unaware of the problem.

Andrea Young, public affairs officer at the VA Medical Center, said that Veterans Affairs officials are always seeking to make sure people are aware of the services that are available to them.

“I think there’s always a need for outreach,” Young said, “and as much outreach that you can do, there are veterans that are definitely not aware in general of VA services, let alone homeless veterans.”

Karen Vislosky, a homeless coordinator at Van Zandt, said that there were 1,290 Pennsylvania veterans in shelters in 2013, which is estimated by the Department of Housing and Urban Development in its annual point-in-time survey. She said an additional 172 homeless veterans were not in shelters, for a total of 1,462 veterans without homes statewide.

Anders said people might not realize the number of these veterans that are female. Many women, he said, get turned away from shelters because they have children, and the shelters will not take the kids in.

“The biggest thing we’re coming up against right now is having a place to send women with kids,” he said, “and there are men veterans with kids, too. Most of the shelters won’t take the kids.”

He said he and his girlfriend, who works alongside him to assist homeless veterans, would like to open a shelter for

women veterans and their children.

His father, Gary, started VFW Post 8724’s program 11 years ago, he said. Hopefully through their efforts, he said, they can bring a more accurate picture of homelessness to the counties that the Duncansville-based post serves: Blair, Centre and Clearfield counties.

“Homelessness is everywhere,” Anders said. “You don’t always know if somebody’s homeless – they could just be a kid.”

Local programs

The VA partners with local homeless shelters to help find places for these displaced veterans. Anders said he works closely with Tomorrows Hope, a shelter in Coalport, Clearfield County, that is strictly for homeless veterans.

Bryan Lytle, who works at the Family Services Inc. Emergency Shelter in Altoona, said they work with the VA and provide beds when needed. Space isn’t always easy to come by, though, in the 22-bed facility, located at 2700 Eighth Ave.

Veterans who move into the Emergency Shelter, much like any other person living there, would be assisted with their primary needs: clothing, food and shelter. The shelter would then assess each veterans’ individual case to provide other needed services or refer them to outside agencies. Drug and alcohol dependency and mental health issues are two examples, he said.

“We do a shelter service plan,” Lytle said. “We do an assessment at the beginning of their stay here, and then we address the different issues that they may have, and that may be caused by their homelessness.”

The shelter also refers people to the Blair County Community Action Agency, which has a program to help veterans find housing.

Ken Leonard, the agency’s housing services coordinator, said they usually see about 20 veterans a year, sometimes more. They are able to assist veterans who meet HUD’s specific definition of homelessness, he said.

“They have to be basically living in a place not meant for human habitation,” Leonard said. “They could be in an emergency shelter or living in the streets, but they can’t be doubled up and living with someone else or can’t be couch-surfing.”

The agency can help veterans find housing and also has programs to assist them with paying rent or security deposits, he said. They could pay rent for up to two years.

The agency can also help a veteran before he or she becomes homeless, if they’re unable to pay rent, he said.

Leonard said he’s been working with the agency for 18 years, and he’s seen far too many homeless people, both veterans and civilians, be turned away from shelters due to overcrowding.

“I know, other than veterans, the Emergency Shelter turns away hundreds of people over the year,” he said. “That’s another thing that we’re in great need of around here: places for homeless people. There isn’t anywhere for them to go.”

Seeing success

Despite the lack of shelters locally, Vislosky said that homelessness among veterans is on the decline statistically.

Though, there is a chance that fewer veterans are coming forward to say they’re homeless, Young said, because since veterans are “all trained in survival,” they may not seek help.

Anders echoed the sentiment.

“They have a pride thing,” he said. “They’re less willing to come forward and say they need help.”

Programs offered through the VA, though, are going strong.

The position of “homeless coordinator” grew from a part-time to a full-time job since she joined in 2008, Vislosky said, partially due to Obama’s 2009 declaration.

Melinda Shey, a homeless coordinator at the VA hospital, said that partnerships between Veterans Affairs and other veterans groups like the VFW and the American Legion strengthen the VA’s programs, as they spread the word.

Community partners, too, like local shelters, are key to the VA’s success.

“A huge part of what we do relies on those partnerships,” Shey said.

At the VA hospital, veterans can be connected with local shelters, given employment training and treated for mental illness or other issues that may contribute to their homelessness, Vislosky said.

They also offer subsidized housing programs both through the VA and through HUD, she said. For those outside of Blair County that may find themselves in need of shelter, the VA is also contracted with shelters in Clearfield and Indiana counties.

Homeless veterans can connect to the VA through the National Call Center for Homeless Veterans, Vislosky said, at 877-424-3838. They could also contact the Veteran Crisis Line by calling 800-273-8255, and then pressing 1.

Shey said the VA also equips its county directors with a number of backpacks filled with necessities provided by the American Red Cross, including hygiene items and personal care items, to give to veterans while they work to find them a place to stay.

Anders said the VFW hosts several events throughout the year to help raise funds for similar efforts both locally and statewide. An annual poker run, held in July, raised $11,000 last year, and in January and February the VFW hosts a mid-winter conference, where clothes are distributed to veterans at local shelters.

Young said people working with and for the VA are strongly motivated to continue combating homelessness among veterans, especially because of some encouraging signs.

“You just hate to think that somebody that protects our nation and served our country, and they come back and don’t have a home,” she said. “Our nation owes it to veterans to help them.”

Baker said that, without the programs that are available to him as a veteran, he would likely have been homeless for much longer.

“If I wasn’t a veteran, God only knows how long I’d be homeless,” he said, “but being a veteran, that put me in front of a long list of people. If I had not known that avenue was available to me, I would have been put way back in the back of some list.”

He said he felt like the VA took a “personal interest” in him and that they did everything they could to help him, even if the process wasn’t exactly perfect.

Baker now is enrolled in an art group through the VA, he said, and the work is going be exhibited soon. It allows him to express himself in new ways, he said.

“I was proud to serve my country and willing to serve my country, but having done so, it was good that my country was there to back me up when I needed it,” he said.

Mirror Staff Writer Paige Minemyer is at 946-7535.