”Veterans Matter housed my 80 year old Veteran and his little dog ‘Mikey’. This Veteran showed up to lease signing in a suit and tie. He melted the heart of his new landlord. Previously he was living in his van with the dog. Good work Veterans Matter, you came through for this veteran BIG TIME! He loves the new apartment and stated ‘I hope I can stay here forever.’” – VASH Social Worker
The renowned anthropologist Margaret Meade was once asked about the first sign of civilization, expecting the answer to be evidence of some sort of tool. Instead, Meade remarked it was a healed femur. Why? Because it meant that, back in the long ago of nomadic, primitive living, where “survival of the fittest” meant you had to hunt, run, gather, and keep moving to stay alive, someone had stayed with injured person, protecting and caring for them, until their broken leg healed. The first sign of civilization was compassion.
If that is true, then perhaps the most civilized among us are those who choose to spend their lives serving others in compassionate professions. We here at Veterans Matter are in particular awe of the VASH social workers.
The Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing (VASH) staff is the clinically-trained Masters level mental health social workers in the Healthcare for Homeless Veterans (HCHV) program of each regional VA hospital. These are the folks we work with directly to house veterans. These are the people who do the heavy lifting.
They are heroes to us. And greater yet, they are heroes to those men, women, and children they have helped house: About 25,000 veterans and veteran families over the past 5 years, all one at a time.
They go out and conduct curb-level street searches, looking for homeless veterans in camps, abandoned buildings and kitchens. This can mean entering some dangerous neighborhoods. (We’ve partnered on several of these “blitzes” – they’re not just knocking door-to-door!) Once they locate a homeless veteran, they work hard to get the former service member fully ID’ed and connected to VA programs and benefits.
Their screening includes eligibility for the HUD-VASH vouchers. If approved, the VASH social worker gets the veteran in the pipeline for housing. Once they find appropriate VASH housing for the veteran, negotiate the lease, and have the veteran ready to cross the threshold into their own housing, the VASH social worker submits a housing referral to us. 99% of the time we can approve this referral in minutes and have the check cut, signed, addressed, stamped, and sent to the landlord the same day.
The Ann Arbor VA Healthcare for Homeless Veterans program coordinator, Shawn Dowling, and 1Matters/Veterans Matter volunteer Shawn Kellerbauer talk to a veteran during a Project Connect event in Adrian, MI, in 2013.
Each veteran’s story is different. All of this is hard work, and each social worker becomes an expert in identifying and then overcoming any and every barrier to domestic autonomy.
“I found a veteran, literally living on the streets, with his very small dog and a bicycle. We were able to talk to him about the HUD-VASH program and then get him a housing voucher. We found a place where the utilities are included in the rent. I was able to also apply for a “Hardship Waiver”, for the veteran which he was granted. Usually the vets have to pay some portion of their rent each month. The waiver exempts them from even the $50.00 a month minimum, charged by the local housing authorities. This veteran had not worked in years and had no source of income of any kind. It is hard to imagine how he had been living in the streets and eating what meals he could from local churches and missions for over five years. Veteran was grateful to the point of tears, to be warm, in his own apartment, both for himself and for his small companion. Again, without Veterans Matter it would have taken much longer to house this veteran. But now he is warm and for the first winter in five years, he will not have to brave the cold of trying to survive living outside. Since he moved into his new apartment the VA has helped him to find second hand furniture, pots and pans, dishes and cleaning supplies and many other necessary household items. It is heartwarming to visit veteran and see how happy he is to be off of the streets and maybe, most of all, to have a place to call home.” – VASH Social Worker
But, after all that work, the VASH staff isn’t done. In fact it just starts. One of the more important aspects of the Housing First approach is continued case management to help in addressing the needs that Veterans have beyond housing; often needs that will help them stay in housing. It is also the VASH social worker’s responsibility to provide wrap-around case management to support that veteran and ensure their success. This is all driven by goals created by the veterans themselves, such as recovery, job training, or education. The social workers help them accomplish those goals, no matter the barriers.
The huge success of Veterans Matter is fueled mostly by the compassionate determination of these VASH social workers and the desire of our homeless veterans to get off the streets. They do the work before and after we bridge that final funding gap not covered by the voucher.
We believe the social workers are the true heroes of this VASH program, which is proving to be very extraordinarily successful. In fact the program is averaging a 91% success rate keeping the Veterans housed over a year.
Yes, much attention has been focused on the delays on the Medical side of the VA. But on the other side of the house the heroes who help our nation’s homeless veterans get housed so fast, and stay housed are the social workers. We believe the reason for success is the wisdom in hiring Masters Level Social Workers. In practice we get to watch them work, and succeed.
To those men and women who wear compassion as the armor to house and protect our Veterans, we salute you as we would a Five Star General. You inspire us. The stories of housing veterans make us cry. Your tireless work is making a real impact in the lives of thousands of veterans now finally, truly home. Thank you for your example of compassion and for being beacons of how a real civilized nation takes care of its own.
I was with a veteran who had been homeless for three years. We signed his lease with the landlord and he asked me to drop him off at the library where he checks his email. About 10 minutes after dropping him off he called me in tears and said “you know as I was walking into the library I realized I have my own apartment and a key in my pocket. I know where I will sleep tonight. It seems like the stress of years of homelessness has been lifted off my shoulders. Thank you for helping me”. Well Ken, that sentiment goes to the good people at Veterans Matters as well. Later he gave me a decoration to hang in my office. It has a house shape with a heart on it and says, HOME is a starting place for LOVE and DREAMS. Sort of glad I am the only person in the office right now so others don’t see the tears rolling down my face while I write this. The other thing about housing homeless veterans is that so many of them tell me that it takes a long time for them to believe that they are housed. Like a homeless PTSD.” – VASH Social Worker