Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Coming Home Homeless :
There is a group of people who have done their part, stepped up, served, gone to war and done everything that has been asked of them without question or hesitation, only to find themselves homeless once that DD-214 is in hand. The Departnent of Veterans Affairs estimates that the number of homeless veterans from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq numbers between nine and ten thousand, but Paul Reickhoff, the director of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, believes that is an extremely conservative estimate.
The seeds of the problems our veterans face were planted several years ago and myriad factors have come together and now we are looking at harvesting a bumper crop of effed up. Part of the problem is repeated deployments and the devastation that inflicts on families, especially when those repeated deployments come with inadequate dwell time in between combat rotations, and when combat tours are stacked as close together as regulations will permit, important things fall by the wayside -- like teaching war ethics -- so we have soldiers repatriating that we have misused, abused and damaged psychically. Part of the problem is the pervasiveness of PTSD and Traumatic Brain Injuries and that pervasiveness is due to...wait for it...repeated deployments.
A lot of the veterans who end up homeless are eligible for VA benefits, but the approval process is cumbersome and puts the onus on the vet to prove they have a legitimate claim. Even though 86% of all claims are eventually approved it is not at all uncommon for a veteran to end up homeless while they wait for their benefits to be approved. It doesn't help that without an address, the process can be slowed down considerably.
So what can we do about it? Linda Bilmes, a researcher with the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard has some ideas on that, and she has gone before Congress repeatedly and told them how to fix it for a large number of these veterans, and everyone nods in agreement with her, then they do nothing she consistently recommends.
But not everyone qualifies for benefits from the VA.
One of the factors that contributes to the skyrocketing number of homeless female veterans is the disintegration of families that crumble under the stress of repeated deployments.
Tara Henry was a chemical weapons specialist with the 101st Airborne and served two deployments to Iraq. Her second tour of duty came only four months after her son was born, but while in Iraq her husband filed for divorce and was granted custody of their two kids.
"When I found out about court and everything else, I said, 'You know what? I gotta get a lawyer." Henry says. "So, I was trying to deal with those things while I was in Iraq. So that's where my money was going."
Henry has lived in shelters, hotels, even in a car on the street. She hasn't told her children that she's homeless. "I don't really think they would understand that," she says.
[ ... ]
Tara Henry, the former chemical weapons specialist whose husband filed for divorce while she was on duty in Iraq, has also found a shelter. She lives in a cubicle at the Borden Avenue Veterans Shelter in Queens. And although she hasn't told her children that she is homeless, her eight-year-old daughter knows something isn't right.
"She took all the money that she had and said, 'Hey Mommy, this'll help you buy a house.' So I guess she knows that it costs."
The military has entire JAG offices on every base. Expand the services they offer so Soldiers in Tara Henry's position, be they women or men, don't have to spend every dime they have on legal representation to keep access to their kids -- kids that they likely joined up to provide for.
I think it is time to do everything Bilmes has recommended, especially the provisional approval of benefits for all applicants. That would take a serious whack at the number of homeless veterans, but I think it is time to go her one better and add a step to the outprocessing everyone goes through when they leave the military. Not everyone has a family to go back to. It would behoove us as a society to identify those veterans during the outprocessing phase and help them secure housing and the unemployment benefits they are entitled to.
Back in 2007 right after my friend Alex outprocessed, he and I were chatting via email one evening and I asked him if he had applied for his unemployment insurance yet. He responded back something like "Oh yeah! I guess I better do that."
It hadn't even been mentioned as he was outprocessing. That's one damned sentence to utter, fercryinoutloud, but I would go one better. I would make the application for benefits part of the process, and eliminate any "waiting weeks" requirements for repatriating soldiers, since the unemployment rate for veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is 20% -- just over twice what it is for the population at large.
I look at it this way -- it costs a million bucks a year to keep a soldier in Afghanistan. Anyone willing to step up and serve deserves to come home to a roof over their head and the security of knowing not only where their next meal is coming from, but that they have choice in what it will be. That could be achieved for about $30 - 45,000 a year, and you can throw an education or vocational training in the mix at that price tag as well.
I don't know about you, but I believe that would be money well spent. In fact, it would completely redefine the old expression about "spending good money after bad."

Monday, December 27, 2010

Attacking need from all angles:
The notion that society can accomplish any outsized goal may be unrealistic. “Full employment” never will be achieved, when only members of the workforce who really want a job have one. Polio is thought to have been eradicated, but there were two reported cases in the United States since 2005. There always will be someone who needs some form of help.
How then should one define the end of homelessness, and then accomplish that goal? Area nonprofit organizations are going to try.
The Suncoast Partnership to End Homelessness, a Sarasota-based not-for-profit organization, seeks to live up to its name by embarking on a 10-year plan to end homelessness in Sarasota County, where some 600 people each night — and 10,000 people each year — are counted as homeless. Meanwhile in Charlotte County, where, on average, 626 people are homeless each night, the Charlotte County Homeless Coalition seeks a similar plan to end homelessness in its region.
It won’t be easy, with the economic crisis still in full bloom in Southwest Florida, along with dwindling government and nonprofit agency budgets. So before embarking on their respective plans, both organizations are defining success.
“Different communities choose to attack the plan in a different way,” said Angela M. Hogan, executive director of the homeless coalition. “My goal is to be able to have enough programs and services available in Charlotte County so that every person that is homeless could participate in services, if they wanted to.”
Richard Martin, executive director of the Suncoast Partnership, says the goal — to have everyone housed — is idealistic. He tells people that ending homelessness means “ending it one family or one individual at a time.”
To ensure favorable results, both agencies are mobilizing others interested in the success of their 10-year plans. Cooperation among governments, the business community and nonprofit agencies may result in the more-efficient delivery of services to the homeless population.
Streamlining the process for helping people may be as much a goal of the 10-year plans as it is a tool for achieving the ultimate goal of ending homelessness.
“It might be a case of reallocation of the dollars,” Suncoast Partnership Board Chair Adam Tebrugge said. “If we are spending a large amount of money in our emergency rooms and in our jails to treat this population, maybe there is a smarter way to get people help that actually will save money over the long run.”
One of the focal points of these plans is that they not begin and end with agencies that have the word “homeless” in their names. For example, if Charlotte Behavioral Healthcare is serving the homeless population, it also should receive funds to be able to provide those services, Hogan said.
“Because we are the lead agency, we are the ‘Homeless Coalition’ and we are the direct service provider for all homeless services in Charlotte County, we have earned this reputation as being solely responsible for the homeless problem,” Hogan said. “At the same time, that discourages collaboration and that discourages other organizations from wanting to get involved. So to change that paradigm in Charlotte County is where we are right now.”
Seeking collaboration, but not wanting to lead the conversation, the Suncoast Partnership is starting its effort with a blank slate other than focusing on jobs/ employment, housing, public safety, homeless prevention and health and human services, Martin says.
For her part, Hogan says, “We’re going to evaluate what programs and services exist, identify gaps in those services and develop programs and services that meet those needs.”
Efforts to end homelessness have support from both the U.S. Conference of Mayors and the National Association of Counties.
“Five years ago the notion of cities having 10-year plans to end homelessness was naive and risky. No one thought it was possible,” U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness Executive Director Philip Mangano said. “But the new research and new technologies have created such movement and innovation on this issue that it may now be naive and risky not to have such a plan.”
While Charlotte County Homeless Coalition officials are seeking advice from Lee and Collier counties on how to formulate their plan, Suncoast Partnership officials are looking at Manatee County for inspiration. Manatee County embarked on a 10-year-plan to end homelessness more than four years ago.
The Suncoast Partnership to End Homelessness officials will conduct a community meeting for anyone who wants to be involved in its 10-year plan Feb. 5, 2011, in downtown Sarasota. They hope to unveil the plan in June of next year. The homeless coalition also will sponsor community workshops before unveiling its plan. Input from past and present homeless people will play a key role in both plans.
Samantha Sumner does not ponder the definition of homelessness, but she studies how to end it every day. Sumner, 33, her husband Scott, 40, and their children Jade, 12, and Hahna, 9, are living at the Homeless Coalition’s emergency shelter in Murdock — residents stay there for up to 60 days — while they try to restore their financial situation, after a yearlong struggle. Samantha is awaiting a hearing to address her disability issues, but the family’s hardship may be easing. Scott recently started a telemarketing job in Charlotte Harbor.
“We’re looking at renting again,” Samantha said.
They don’t have a car, so they’ll look for a home close enough to his job that Scott can ride a bicycle provided by Edgewater United Methodist Church’s bike ministry, Samantha said.
Meanwhile, there’s a help wanted sign in the window of Basia’s Food Mart on El Jobean Road, a short bike ride from the shelter.

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