Maine Voices: Homeless veterans have an ally

On any given night in America, more than 63,000 veterans have nowhere to call home and sleep in shelters, on the streets, in abandoned buildings or in the woods.

One of them – a man discharged from the Army in the 1980s – spent much of his adult life homeless, sleeping in his truck, in a tent or on boardinghouse couches.

Decades of untreated mental illness and alcoholism made it difficult for him to maintain an apartment or even a spot in an emergency shelter. And because he was trying desperately to stay sober, he kept his distance from "wet" shelters, which accommodate people struggling with addiction.

Social service providers had difficulty seeing beyond his challenges to the person he had been and was capable of being. And so this man, who had risked his life serving his country, tumbled through the safety net. The scope of his unmet needs – housing, economic, social and physical and mental health – was immense, as were the barriers preventing him from meeting those needs.

As we celebrate Independence Day, we must remember the cost of freedom. The ongoing scandal in the Veterans Affairs health care system demonstrates that we as a nation too often shortchange the men and women – forgotten heroes – who willingly stood up to pay that price.

But there is good news, too.

Efforts to end veteran homelessness in Maine began here in 2011, when the Department of Veterans Affairs funded a public-private partnership among Preble Street, the city of Portland and Pine Tree Legal Assistance to help homeless veterans across the state.

In just three years, Preble Street Veterans Housing Services has served hundreds of veterans from offices in Portland, Bangor and Lewiston, helping more than 500 of them find stable housing or preventing them from sliding into homelessness. Among them were 179 families and 138 children.

When they exited the program, 138 of those veterans were employed and 415 were receiving the VA benefits they were entitled to.

Veterans Housing Services assists low-income veterans, and their families, who are homeless or at risk of homelessness to find and maintain stable housing. The program not only connects veterans to affordable housing, it also helps them navigate through the VA, and offers direct assistance to overcome obstacles to housing, such as security deposits and utility fees.

In Portland, where veterans once accounted for more than 15 percent of the people using the Oxford Street Shelter, only about 5 percent of city shelter beds are now filled by veterans. On recent nights, of the more than 400 people in Portland shelters, only seven were veterans. That’s an unprecedented reduction in a single population at a time when overall homelessness in the city has increased.

As important as the statistics are, though, more important is the work Preble Street does removing the barriers that hold veterans like our clients back from achieving the lives they deserve.

For the man whose situation is described above, the nightmare began to recede when Veterans Housing Services entered his life. With short-term financial assistance from the program, he was able to find an efficiency apartment.

His Preble Street caseworker also worked with him to sign up for VA health coverage. With that assistance, he began to feel hopeful and healthy for the first time in many years; his physical and mental health improved, and he was finally able to overcome his addiction.

Once his housing and health needs were met, he began saving to buy a car and applied to college.

His story demonstrates what the most vulnerable people among us can accomplish with someone on their side to believe in them and work with them to achieve a brighter future.

In his 1962 Thayer Award speech, Gen. Douglas MacArthur extolled the virtues of duty, honor and country, telling West Point cadets: "Those three hallowed words reverently dictate what you ought to be, what you can be, what you will be."

Our service men and women pledge themselves to these guiding principles, but what happens when they complete their service and return to civilian life? We, as a country, have a duty to treat them with the honor they deserve.

Partnerships like Preble Street Veterans Housing Services do just that, offering the crucial social supports needed to bring our nation’s homeless veterans home for good.

– Special to the Press Herald