Winter comes, homelessness for veterans still remain a problem

Steve Knutson (Unsplash)

By Sizhong Chen
Boston University Statehouse Program

QUINCY – Michael, wearing his blue veteran Navy cap, was smiling when he entered the room. He had spent 15 months at Father Bill’s Place, an emergency shelter for homeless people in Quincy. A few weeks earlier, he got enrolled in a permanent housing provided by the same non-profit organization, Father Bill’s and MainSpring.

“I think I’ll be out before Christmas,” said Michael, who requested that he be referenced only by his first name.

Michael had never thought about being homeless. He came from a military family and entered the Navy in 1984 at 17 years old. After discharge, he quickly adjusted to civilian life as a truck driver.

His life shifted in 2015. Sharing a joint bank account with his ex-girlfriend in Florida, Michael found out all his money, as well as the equipment for his truck driving business, had been stolen while he was away in South Dakota. Having no job or family, Michael came to Massachusetts to seek help through a friend. They did not get along.

It was the lowest point in his life.

Transporting soldiers into combat, Michael had been a traveler on the sea. During the same period, he picked up excessive drinking habits. After being homeless, the habit got worse to a stage of alcoholism.

Following the advice of the New Way Peer Recovery Center in Quincy, Michael went into Father Bill’s Place for help. The staff gave him a bed at “gateway,” a sober dorm assigned specifically for veterans. The 13 beds are funded by U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs through a reimbursement program called “Grant and Per Diem.”

From there, Michael worked with a case manager to fill out paperwork he needed and found two part-time jobs.

“I followed procedure they offered me,” Michael said. “And in the end, it worked.”

Michael’s case is not rare. On a single night in January 2018, about 985 veterans were experiencing homelessness in Massachusetts.

Veterans have a higher risk for homelessness, according to a 2012 study. The prolonged separation from family and friends can make it harder to adjust to civilian life. And personal challenges such as self-esteem and highly demanding training put them at higher risk of substance use.

The study also pointed out that due to their lack of housing and the likelihood to chronic health problems, homeless veterans have higher demands for long-term care through the VA.

Homelessness in veterans remains an issue in Massachusetts. In a 2018 report of U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the number of homeless veterans went up 15.5 percent in the state, the first time in five years.

Non-profit organizations such as Father Bill’s and MainSpring usually acquire funding from public and private sectors. On the public side, the money comes from the VA and state departments such as Department of Veteran Services and Department of Housing and Community Development.

While the VA provides capital for assets such as emergency beds to veterans with substance use problems, and also competitive grants for transitional housing or other acquired properties, the state funds for development and operating subsidies.

The support has been real. In fiscal 2018, the Department of Veteran Services planned to spend over $3.23 million on assistance to veteran homelessness centers. In addition, it also distributed about $2.4 million to the New England Center and Home for Veterans.

The new permanent housing Michael enrolled in is a new residential building just completed in October. It contains 23 apartments, 12 dedicated for veterans. The state’s Department of Housing and Community Development contributed $3.1 million to the $5 million project.

Veterans Inc., another non-profit, founded in Worcester to serve homeless vets, has expanded in all six New England states. According to the government affairs manager Jason Palitsch, Massachusetts is the only state that they receive direct funding from, which contributes mainly to the emergency shelter and outreach services for homeless veterans.

But there are still holes in the system.

“We are struggling,” Yazwinski said. “We shelter everybody that comes to our door.”

On average, Father Bill’s and MainSpring had 230 individuals per night sleeping in the emergency shelters last year, but the state only funded them for 126 people per night. In November, the MainSpring House in Brockton accepted 287 people. With colder weather coming, Yazwinski worried the issue to be more serious.

In addition, substance use might worsen the problem. Homeless people who suffer addiction have a problem maintaining relationships and housing. While Father Bill’s and MainSpring receives about $26 a day from the state to shelter someone as a minimal support, they are getting an influx of homeless people who have addiction issues who were kicked out by other nursing homes or residential programs.

Palitsch addressed the issue as well. Even though the number of homeless veterans have come down nationally compared to five years ago, he said the veterans they work with tend to have more intense and complicated needs that normally caused by mental health issues such as post-traumatic stress disorder.

“We suspect that the most significant reason in New England is the opioid crisis. It hit the general population pretty hard,” he said. “It hit the veteran population even harder.”

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