When Fawn Dalton found herself and her two young sons camping in a friend’s living room, she knew she was homeless.
But she didn’t know where to go.
Then a friend directed her to the Albany Housing Coalition, which assists veterans with housing and employment. There, she learned about the Healthcare for Homeless Veterans program in Albany.
Today Dalton lives in a spacious three-bedroom apartment in Albany, her rent subsidized through a program run by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Known as the Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing Program, or HUD-VASH, the program combines Section 8 rental assistance with case management and clinical services. Section 8 is a federal housing program that provides private landlords with rental assistance on behalf of low-income tenants; the HUD-VASH program sets Section 8 vouchers aside for veterans.
Two years ago, the Department of Veterans Affairs announced an ambitious five-year plan for ending homelessness among veterans. The plan focuses on helping veterans who are already homeless, but also on preventing homelessness. Veterans are provided with housing, but also with employment training, mental health treatment, substance abuse services and primary health care.
Dalton, 36, said the VA has helped her with much more than housing.
“They’ve helped with Christmas presents for the kids,” said Dalton, whose sons are 9 and 5. “They’ve helped with furniture. They’ve helped with food. They’ve gone above and beyond.”
A Texas native, Dalton spent four years in the Navy in Coronado, Calif., working in the medical office and also as a boatswain’s mate. She got out in 1998 and moved to Schoharie with the father of her 16-year-old son. The relationship ended and she moved to Albany. She got by waitressing and working odd jobs and had her young sons. But her relationship with the father of one of the boys became abusive, and when he moved out Dalton was unable to make rent.
Some regard ending homelessness among veterans as an impossible task, but there’s been progress.
According to James R. Peluso, who manages the Healthcare for Homeless Veterans program at Stratton VA Medical Center in Albany, the number of homeless veterans nationwide has steadily dropped, from 400,000 in 2004 to 135,000 this year. He estimated that there are between 1,500 and 2,000 homeless veterans in the Capital Region, but the number is fluid.
“They’re hard to track,” Peluso said. “They’re mobile.”
Vietnam veterans are the largest population served by the VA, but the number of younger veterans — men and women who served in Iraq and Afghanistan — is growing. And while the Vietnam veterans are aging out of the workforce, these younger veterans are still trying to figure out how to adjust to civilian life, attain employment and provide for their families.
A.C. Budd Mazurek, executive director of the Saratoga County Rural Preservation Program, which provides housing and services for veterans, said that more are seeking help than ever before. “Part of it is the unemployment situation.”
The Rural Preservation Program provides 12 beds for male veterans, and will be able to provide 10 beds for women when a new facility opens in the fall. “We have a waiting list for the men’s house,” he said. “It’s always full.”
Between 50 percent to 60 percent of the veterans served by the program are Vietnam vets, but the number of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans has been climbing, Mazurek said.
Mazurek described ending veteran homelessness as “a laudable goal, but I don’t think it’s doable.”
Joseph Sluszka, the executive director of the Albany Housing Coalition, was more hopeful.
“You have to be optimistic,” he said. “I was in the room two years ago when [VA Secretary] Eric Shinseki made this announcement. You could hear a pin drop. I wanted to stand up and cheer.”
For many veterans, readjusting to civilian life is a big challenge.
Mental health issues such as post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury are often problems, as are other physical injuries. But just figuring out how to live a normal life is also difficult. Many veterans, Peluso said, give little thought to what they want to do when they get out of the military. Mazurek said women veterans are likely to have experienced sexual harassment or sexual trauma in the military.
Sluszka said: “A lot of the behavior vets display are a direct and indirect response to their combat experience.”
He said the Albany Housing Coalition tries to raise the self-esteem of veterans, create an atmosphere of trust and “push them along.” He said for too long people have made the mistake of treating only the symptoms of veterans’ problems, rather than the underlying causes. By helping provide stability, employment, peer support and access to health services, the organization aims to make veterans self-sufficient and healthy, he said.
“I talk to some veterans who served in Vietnam, and it’s as if it happened yesterday for them,” Sluszka said.
Sluszka said the VA does an excellent job of providing traditional health care, but that it’s been slower to address the mental health side. He said that the VASH programs are good, but that too often the case managers are only available during the workday. “We get phone calls at 9 o’clock at night,” he said. “VASH works for some vets, but it doesn’t work for others. It is not the sole answer for ending homelessness among veterans. Homelessness among veterans is not simply a housing issue, and it’s not an 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. issue.”
The Albany Housing Coalition provides housing for between 80 and 90 veterans. The organization runs a 28-bed transitional residence for veterans, a 12-bed home for disabled veterans, affordable apartment units scattered throughout the community and Section 8 vouchers for other vets.
Peluso himself is a Vietnam veteran.
He was injured in the war, with multiple wounds from shrapnel and bullets. He returned to the United States and underwent physical rehabilitation, eventually earning a graduate degree in rehabilitation and becoming a rehabilitation counselor.
The Homeless Veterans program was small when Peluso arrived at the VA in 1995, but it has grown. Today, Peluso has a staff of over 20.
“This started out as outreach to veterans,” Peluso said. “They tried to pick vets up. Then they started transitional housing. When I came here, we grew into supportive housing. Now we have emergency housing.”
Recently the Massachusetts-based non-profit organization Soldier On received a $1 million grant that will enable it to provide supportive services for veterans in parts of Massachusetts and upstate New York. The plan is to hire case managers, some of whom will work with veterans served by Stratton VA. Peluso said partnerships such as the one with Soldier On are essential in the fight to eliminate homelessness.
“The VA has recognized that it can’t do it alone,” Peluso said.
As awareness of the issues facing homeless veterans has grown, community agencies have become more interested in establishing programs to serve homeless veterans.
In the past few decades, Veterans Affairs has evolved and broadened its scope.
When Vietnam veterans such as Peluso returned to the U.S., the VA mainly served older veterans of World War I, World War II and Korea; Peluso described it as a “geriatric facility. For Vietnam veterans, the VA wasn’t any place you wanted to go. Coming out of the military, the VA wasn’t on your mind.” PTSD, he noted, wasn’t even recognized as a diagnosis until 1980.
Things are different today.
The VA offers a range of mental health services, and makes an effort to reach out to younger veterans and make them aware of the VA’s services.
“We make sure that if a veterans’ event is going on in the community that we have a presence,” Peluso said. “Back in the 1970s, this was not happening. The VA has become much more aware of the community, and the community has become much more aware of the VA.”
Veteran unemployment is also an issue, and this summer President Barack Obama announced a new jobs initiative. His proposal calls for new tax breaks to encourage employers to give veterans a hiring advantage. Among younger veterans, the unemployment rate is nearly 13 percent.
Peluso said that the VA’s case managers work with veterans to develop vocational goals. The vast majority of people, he said, are employable.
“I believe that, with a few exceptions, that we can develop accommodations to employ almost everyone.”
Sluszka said the Albany Housing Coalition helps veterans find living wage work that pays at least $11 an hour. Most of their clients, he said, retain these jobs for over nine months.
Today Dalton is studying medical coding and billing at the Bradford Hall Career Institute; she graduates in about five weeks, and will then start an internship at Stratton VA. When she sees homeless veterans on the street, she tells them about the Homeless Veterans program.
“I say, ‘This is the place you need to go.’”
Categories: Schenectady County