Homeless veterans in Iowa and parts of northwest Illinois are missing services available to help them because many do not know about the services, which include financial and housing assistance, or simply choose not to use them.
Mental health issues are a reason for some of the disconnect, too, several IowaWatch interviews revealed.
This is despite a concentrated effort by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, announced in 2009, to end veteran homelessness.
Services these veterans miss out on include shelter, food, health care and counseling. The homelessness affects not just the veterans but their families and friends. Veterans who abruptly lose their income can be end up states away from their families and support systems.
Support groups trying to reach these veterans cannot be sure how many are homeless or where they are so that they can reach out to often transient or hard to find veterans.
“Out there it’s pretty rough for a homeless veteran because you’re kind of invisible,” Michael Washington, a Marine veteran living in Davenport, Iowa, said. Washington has been homeless off and on since being discharged in 2011.
Washington, 27, joined the Marine Corps at 19 in 2007 and was stationed in Cherry Point, North Carolina. He was an aircraft electrical systems technician before leaving the Marines in 2011 with a general discharge under honorable conditions as a private first class.
Washington has been homeless twice since being discharged and, while he has an apartment now, struggles with anxiety and depression.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) estimated in 2016 that there were 170 homeless veterans in Iowa. An exact count is hard to make, though. The HUD count is done only once a year, in January, and only covers four Iowa counties. Some counties count homeless people in other months but focus on all homeless people, not just veterans, and the results at those times vary from the HUD numbers.
Some veterans don’t want to be found for reasons that include privacy, dealing with mental illness and even, in some cases, trying to avoid arrest for a past crime, those interviewed by IowaWatch said.
“You know when you signed on the dotted line you said that you were willing to make the ultimate sacrifice,” U.S. Rep. Dave Loebsack, D-Iowa, formerly a member of the House Armed Forces Committee, said. “And it’s just shameful that anyone who has done that, who is willing to make that sacrifice, should end up without a home. It just doesn’t make any sense.”
Veterans have access to several programs and VA benefits that help them transition to civilian life after they leave the military.
“There are so many programs available to veterans out there, but veterans don’t know how to access those services or they may not know about those particular organizations,” U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, a retired National Guard lieutenant colonel who served in a combat zone in Iraq, said.
The need to connect with services is critical, especially with mental health being a major concern for veterans, especially homeless ones, Ernst said. “There are a lot of programs available. We want to make sure that, of course, those that have earned and deserve those benefits are steered in the right direction,” she said in an IowaWatch interview.
Veterans who have experienced a medical crisis, mental illness, or addiction find themselves at risk of homelessness, according to interviews done by IowaWatch. Services they received in the military go away after discharge unless they arrange for their own care or go to the Department of Veterans Affairs.
David Turnbow, 66, a retired Army veteran who served from 1973 to 1992, said the last time his mental health was evaluated was in 1983 when he was in the Army. Once he left the Army he ignored symptoms of post-traumatic stress syndrome, or PTSD, he said. Turnbow, who has been homeless off and on since 2002 and who came from Nebraska to eastern Iowa, said he didn’t seek help for that until this year.
Before being homeless in 2015 for the third time Turnbow traveled to New Jersey for the funeral of his daughter and paid the funeral costs and for his travel. “So I really had nothing when I got back here,” he said.
Turnbow said he wasn’t able to take advantage of VA health care and available housing grants until he came to the Shelter House in Iowa City because they weren’t offered anywhere else he lived. “This is the only facility that I was able to get help from the VA,” he said about Shelter House.
“All of these doorways were opening to help a veteran. Things I didn’t know about, things a lot of other different veterans didn’t know about,” Turnbow said.
Turnbow eventually got VA help moving into an apartment.
ADJUSTING TO NEW LIFE
William Liu, professor of psychology at the University of Iowa, said some veterans have difficulty adjusting into civilian life because the military provides structure and stability.
Minimal symptoms of undiagnosed mental illness veterans may have before joining the military get bigger when they return to civilian lives, he said. Not every veteran experiences these problems, but homeless ones, more often than not, do, Liu said.
Also, many veterans come from lower economic backgrounds before enlisting in the military, he said. They lack financial means to deal with civilian life.
Members of each branch of the armed services are required to attend a transitional readiness program before being discharged. The transitional readiness program outlines each benefit veterans can receive from the VA and the U.S. Department of Labor.
However, the message gets lost for some because they forget the training over time. Others were in the military when the readiness program was not required. In still other instances, program titles get changed, making it difficult to know what they mean.
“What we find is, over time, a lot of veterans don’t know that they’re eligible for VA care,” said Sarah Oliver, who was VA’s homeless program coordinator in Rock Island, Illinois, for the Quad Cities area until July when she became the VA’s grant and per diem coordinator for the Iowa City VA Health Care system district. That district covers 50 counties in east Iowa, western Illinois and northern Missouri.
Oliver was in the process of moving to her new job when IowaWatch caught up with her in June. The Rock Island office where she was working at the time of her interview had rooms back full of clothing and hygienic items, like soap and deodorant. It was relatively small and part of a strip mall. On the walls were highlighted documents showing services and benefits veterans could get. The wall before the office had as many brochures as a doctor’s office.
“Homeless folks aren’t perfectly fine, set-up people who just don’t happen to have housing,” Oliver said. “Families get put in the position of, do I pay for my medical care and my medicine or my rent?”
STRANDED IN IOWA
Sometimes veterans miss out on jobs and end up stranded without money. Jarome Thompson, who will be 55 on Sept. 21, 2016, and an Army veteran who served from 1979 to 1983 in Germany and San Diego, said he has been homeless three times since leaving the Army and trying to find work in various places. [Editor’s note: the original version of this story had an incorrect age for Thompson.]
The third time was in April 2015 in Cedar Rapids. He had traveled from Colorado for work as a trucker that month but wasn’t hired.
“I’ve been stuck here in Iowa,” Thompson said. Thompson said he was homeless in Iowa for a week and a half before he was able to get into an apartment on April 21, 2015.
The Veterans Administration and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development have partnered to give veterans a HUD-Veterans Affairs supportive housing voucher, or the HUD-VASH voucher, for rental assistance to veterans.
Thompson was able to use a voucher after being helped by the Hawkeye Area Community Action Program, or HACAP, which has anti-poverty programs in Linn, Johnson, Jones, Iowa, Benton and Washington Counties.
Sometimes how veterans are discharged makes them ineligible for VA benefits, including some but not all benefits for health care and housing. Honorably discharged veterans are eligible for VA health and housing benefits and grants if they have served 24 months active service or the entire period for which they were called to active duty.
Oliver said the eligibility rules for VA care and housing assistance for homeless veterans have changed a lot over the years.
Current eligibility rules for housing assistance and health care apply to veterans who served after Oct. 16, 1981, but many of the veterans who are homeless are older than 50 and served before 1981. Those veterans only need to have served 90 days instead of 24 months in order to be eligible for health and housing benefits from the VA.
Location matters, too.
Often veterans services such as those for homeless veterans aren’t available in rural areas. The HUD-Veterans Affairs supportive housing voucher, for example, goes to specific towns and cities where there is a high population of homeless veterans.
“Sometimes what we have to do is bring the veteran to where the services are,” Oliver said.
Oliver said she sees 200 to 250 veterans a month at the Rock Island Outreach Center. Most are peacetime veterans in their 50s with an honorable discharge. They come for food, case management or just coffee and a computer. “A lot of the folks who would stop in maybe are people we’ve already housed, but continue to need something,” she said.
The VA’s homeless programs have partnered with Goodwill Industries to help veterans find work, Oliver said.
One of every five people at The Humility of Mary Shelter for homeless in Davenport are veterans. Christine Adamson, the shelter’s director of services, said they go there because they don’t have a job, suffer with alcohol and drug addiction, have no consistent financial support or don’t have family support.
The Humility of Mary Shelter is by the railroad tracks and near a bridge that crosses the Mississippi River. Its lobby is reminiscent of a school building, with flyers at or above eye level showing information about free clinics and other services.
The Central Iowa Shelter and Services in Des Moines also helps serve veterans. On Mulberry Street in the capital city, the shelter stands brightly colored with a sculpture that looks like a whistle on the side and a vacant lot across the street, usually used for parking during big events downtown.
Inside the shelter is a lobby area with doors leading either to offices on the right or a large cafeteria-style room to the left, with a courtyard further back with a garden.
“We’re always going to have new homeless veterans entering the system,” Zeleke said.
Zeleke said the shelter doesn’t always have enough beds available. It has 207 beds for homeless people and 19 rooms specifically for veterans on the third floor.
HUD uses four criteria to reach what it calls functional zero, when new veterans coming into the system are housed quickly:
- 1. Identifying all veterans experiencing homelessness.
- 2. Providing shelter immediately to homeless veterans who want it.
- 3. Providing limited short-term transitional housing.
- 4. Having the capacity to swiftly assist veterans into permanent housing.
Kendall Denise, 51, an Army veteran who served from 1985 to 1989 at Fort Knox, Kentucky, was one of the 41 veterans at the shelter on June 17, Zeleke said.
“I lived in a park and slept on a picnic table at night,” Denise said. After Denise was discharged from the Army he had a home and was married in Des Moines, but the marriage ended in divorce. Then came drug addiction and homelessness.
“I had burned my bridges with my mom and dad,” Denise said. Eventually somebody told him to speak to the VA.
“I decided I can’t do it on the street no more,” Denise said. In February Denise was able to get an apartment at the Central Iowa Shelter. “They got me in, in one day.”
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This IowaWatch story was republished by The Hawk Eye (Burlington, IA), The Gazette (Cedar Rapids, IA), Des Moines Register, Iowa State Daily and KIOW.com under IowaWatch’s mission of sharing stories with media partners. Also, Iowa Public Radio featured this story and author Thomas Nelson spoke about his report on the Aug. 30, 2016, River to River program.