Who is the American homeless veteran?
On any given night in this country, there are 200,000 homeless veterans, according to the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans. Among homeless veterans:
• 97 percent are men
• 47 percent served in the Vietnam era
• 15 percent served pre-Vietnam
• 17 percent served post-Vietnam
• 67 percent served three or more years in the service
• 33 percent were stationed in a war zone
• 89 percent received an honorable discharge
• 45 percent have a mental illness
• 25 percent are receiving VA Homeless Services
• 85 percent completed high school or a GED, compared with 56 percent of non-veteran homeless individuals.
Source: U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs
The sun shone brightly on Rex Sefton on Wednesday as he sat in the upstairs bedroom he shares with three other men at New Life House. Sefton, 55, picked up his guitar, one of the few possessions he brought with him last week when he moved into the newly opened homeless shelter. He described the song he had written.
“It's called ‘Free to Succeed',” he said while tuning the strings.
The words carried a hopeful message for a man who has had his share of fears and problems. He served his country in the Air Force during peacetime, and later was called up as a reservist for active duty in the Middle East during Desert Storm. He lost his job awhile back, then his van. He could no longer afford a roof over his head.
But on this day before Veterans Day, thanks to New Life House, a transitional shelter program for male veterans at 729 E. Jefferson Blvd., he sang a song about overcoming fear.
“I like it here,” he said of New Life House. The first of its kind in northern Indiana, the shelter operates under the auspices of the VA Northern Indiana Health Care System (VANIHCS), which has contracted with the nonprofit social services arm of Union Baptist Church – Project Impact and the Family Life Development Counseling Center – to provide staffing, counseling, transportation and other services.
Fort Wayne's Shepherd's House, for homeless veteran men with substance-abuse problems, vies for grant funding at the national level. New Life House, on the other hand, is made possible through a new pool of grant money distributed to local VA hospitals from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, said Naomi Nicastro, homeless coordinator for VANIHCS.
“This is a locally managed program,” Nicastro said, explaining the local VA decides what services are needed for the veterans and contracts with a community agency to operate the shelter program. The agency is paid a per diem rate of just over $53 per veteran.
Grant funding also covered up to 65 percent of the purchase price or renovation costs needed to obtain and ready the shelter. Men can stay up to six months.
A year ago, Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki made a promise to the nation: to end homelessness of veterans within five years.
“We will use every tool at our disposal – education, jobs, safe housing – to ensure our veterans are restored to lives with dignity, purpose and safety,” he told those gathered at the National Summit on Homeless Veterans in Washington, D.C., according to a VA news announcement.
The 10-bed New Life House is made possible through some of the $400 million additional funds for boosting the VA's homeless prevention programs and services.
The majority of the money is targeted for health care. The VA recognizes one of the main causes of veteran homelessness is untreated or unresolved health problems, particularly mental illness and substance abuse. To that end, New Life House has prioritized serving men with mental illness.
Starting Monday, a licensed counselor will provide group counseling, with mental health services also available at the local VA outpatient clinic and hospital, said Chloe Holloway, office manager for the shelter program. The house is staffed 24/7 by a team of five experienced aides, including a retired teacher and several individuals with caregiver experience in group-home settings. All meals except breakfast are prepared at Union Baptist Church and taken to the house.
Nicastro said most veterans experiencing homelessness in northern Indiana are from the Vietnam or post-Vietnam era, with growing numbers of homeless women veterans. The economic downturn has contributed to overall higher numbers of veterans with no permanent housing, she said.
Although screening for physical and mental health problems after veterans' discharge from active duty has intensified, some experts predict that delayed ramifications of the “invisible wounds of war” – traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder, for example – could result in a large wave of homelessness in coming years.
Residents in northern Indiana will see additional housing options for veterans in the coming months, Nicastro said. For example, Volunteers of America was just awarded a grant from the VA to open a 40-bed shelter in Fort Wayne for both men and women veterans. Another program, HUD-VA Supported Housing, is providing 130 vouchers, including 70 for Fort Wayne, for case management of homeless veterans, with a goal of getting them into permanent housing.
Additionally, the Community Residential Care Program is an adult foster care program for veterans who do not qualify for nursing home-level care but who need assistance.