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The Start of Veterans Matter

What does that mean, anyway – “0 to 35 in 11”? Actually, it means something pretty incredible. It describes the speed of real compassion for veterans, a commitment to making a difference that moves people to urgency, greasing bureaucratic wheels that normally respond slowly.

It’s the story behind the start of Veterans Matter, which didn’t exist on February 7th, 2012. That was when Shawn Dowling, the coordinator of the Ann Arbor VA Medical Center’s Health Care for Homeless Veterans program, told Ken Leslie about one of the most significant obstacles in the path of housing veterans: rental deposits.

Ken, who’d started Toledo’s Homeless Awareness Project, Tent City, over 20 years ago, and Shawn had already worked together. Not only did the VA have a special area for veterans at Tent City, the two had gone on street searches in Toledo and in Flint, Michigan, looking for homeless veterans. Both were experienced, dedicated, and passionate people when it came to advocating for those they were serving.

That is why, when Shawn related that she had 35 HUD-VASH vouchers and approved veterans waiting for to use them but her hands were tied to actually get them into housing, Ken was compelled to act. The fact that around $750 meant these veteran men, women, and families would stay homeless until enough funds loosened up here and there to scrape together a rental deposit outraged him. The problem was simple: not enough money. So the solution was simple: get the money supplied. But how?

Ken knew the head of the Advocacy Fund at ProMedica Health System in Toledo. The day after he learned of the issue from Shawn, he phoned Barb Petee and told her about it. Then he asked for enough funding to house the 35 veterans for whom Shawn had vouchers, to the tune of $26,250. That was the 8th of February.

For those who don’t know how the grant process works for nonprofits, there’s a good word to describe almost all of it: Slow. Grantmakers must review dozens of applications for a limited pot of money, performing due diligence and ensuring candidates fit within the vision of the granting organization and can be trusted to accomplish the goals they claim the grant will help them achieve. The process understandably takes months.

But when we’re talking about ending homelessness for individuals and families – not just a faceless group – we’re talking about life and death solutions for some, and, at the very least, a safe and stable base for rebuilding life for all. Ken understood this well, from having lived out of his car as a homeless comedian in the late 80’s. One night on the streets is one night too many, especially for the children involved. So a months-long process to get rental deposit money wasn’t going to work. Ken tried his best to underscore the urgency of the situation. Barb told Ken she’d see what she could do.

Waiting is not something Ken does well, particularly when there’s a solvable problem affecting people he cares about. Unfortunately, there are not many places to turn to get over $26,000 given to you, so while Barb worked on things on her end, Ken had to sit tight.

It may have seemed like forever to Ken, but it was only seven days later, on Valentine’s Day at 5:36 p.m., that Barb called Ken to say ProMedica would fast track the solution to this problem and grant 1Matters.org the money to house all 35 veterans. Three days later, the first veteran family was approved, and Ken cut the check directly to the landlord. That kind of speed is virtually unheard of, and speaks to the compassion and commitment of ProMedica to help its community.

The process between the VA social worker (VASH manager) referrals to 1Matters and the check sent to the landlord worked so quickly and so smoothly that it seemed ridiculous to keep this idea in-house. Soon enough, the 35 veterans would be housed and the grant from ProMedica used up. But there were more than 35 veterans out there to help. Ken’s wheels started turning. He called this new, budding program branch of 1Matters ‘Veterans Matter’.

Because of contacts in the entertainment industry, including a strong relationship formed with John Mellencamp and several people in his management group after John’s appearance at Tent City in 2007 (it was this appearance, in fact, that sparked the name 1Matters), Ken hoped to leverage their notoriety to get the job of housing homeless veterans done for as long as needed in Toledo. That’s how he came into contact with Dusty Hill of ZZ Top, a long-time supporter of veterans, who agreed to shoot a video PSA when the band passed through the area that summer. Dusty became so captivated by the mission that just a few months later he and his wife initiated the launch of Operation Houston (now Operation Texas), along with a few others committed to the cause.

From there, Veterans Matter picked up speed, garnering more celebrity supporters and more people and organizations in other areas interested in starting their own operations. Ken worked quickly to get a cloud-based, confidential referral software solution in place that would allow VASH managers to enter their referrals into a database and immediately send them to Veterans Matter for approval. This solution allows Veterans Matter to review, approve, send approval notifications, and cut checks directly to the landlords within just a few minutes. That initial sense of urgency has never let up, and continues to drive Ken and his small team (one part time staff person, and two contractors).

Now nearly three years later, Veterans Matter has housed over 525 veterans and veteran families, about 820 people in total, including 215 children. While we celebrate these numbers every day, we have our eyes on our 2015 goal: 1500 more.

Our mission is to house as many unhoused veterans as we can, as fast as we can, while preventing more from becoming unhoused. When Veterans Matter supplies the rental deposit for one veteran family, other funds from the community are kept available to prevent another veteran family from ending up on the streets.

Please join us. We have a limited-time window of opportunity to virtually end veteran homelessness as a nation. HUD and the VA have the vouchers and considerable political support for this effort. We ask that you help us do what’s right and serve the men and women who’ve served our country. Work with us to get more veterans housed. Donate today to celebrate our third anniversary. Donate in memory or in honor of a veteran. Donate because it’s the least we can give for those willing to give the most.

Thank you. Thank you for mattering to veterans.