By Amy Guckeen Tolson, USAG Redstone May 7, 2014
REDSTONE ARSENAL, Ala. -- Chris Crocker is living the dream.
A dream that has at times been a nightmare.
Upon his medical retirement from the Army in 2004, Crocker thought he had found his life's calling, training Soldiers on Redstone Arsenal, and later, in Virginia. But when Crocker's position as a contractor was eliminated, his well-laid plans were turned upside down.
He moved to Maine. And then in fall 2013, to Alabama, to cope with an emergency situation with his son. Finding a steady paycheck in the area was easier said than done.
"I found that that was going to be much more difficult than I had hoped," Crocker said.
With little money and no place to call home, amidst the frigid temperatures and snowflakes of winter, Crocker slept just about everywhere and in between in the Huntsville area -- shelters, his car, his ex's grandparents. And then he found Priority Veteran.
Partnered with the United Way of Central Alabama and made possible by a Supportive Services for Veteran Families program grant from the Department of Veterans Affairs, Priority Veteran staff work to find local veterans affordable, sustainable and stable housing. A little more than 100 days since they opened at 400 Meridian St. in Huntsville, together with offices in Birmingham, Tuskegee and Tuscaloosa, Huntsville staff has been tasked with getting 500 veterans into a place they can call home by the end of 2014.
"We help them open doors to get where they're going," said Jody Johnson, case manager.
"And find the strength to do it," added Molly Burke, case manager.
To be eligible for services, a veteran must have served in the military for 24 months, cannot have been dishonorably discharged and must fall below the poverty level. If a veteran is literally homeless but has VA health care, the 24 month requirement may be waived. To speak with Priority Veteran staff, veterans can call (866) 460-3827. Once a veteran is connected with the organization, he or she will sit down with a case manager to talk about their needs, establish goals, ensure they're receiving the VA and Social Security benefits they're eligible for, and work to find a stable job and sustainable housing.
Working within the veteran's budget, case managers partner with their clients to find apartments within their budget and means, often looking for nearby conveniences like grocery stores or bus routes, in case they don't have access to a vehicle, and if needed, putting them in an area away from social pressures that might cause them to fall back into old habits. Priority Veteran will often pay for expenses like utility deposits or first month's rent to help get the veteran started, which is paid directly to the vendors.
"We aren't going to get them into something they can't sustain," Burke said. "Sometime it's a little humbling to go into a $300 apartment, but if that's the one you're going to be able to sustain, then that's the one you need to be in. I'd rather be in a $300 apartment than out on the streets again in two months."
Even after the keys to their new life have been handed to them, that doesn't mean the work of Priority Veteran staff is done. Case managers check in with clients on a weekly basis to ensure they're going to work, paying their bills and that they still want to be where they're at. Financial counseling is also available to help veterans stay on track with managing their income.
"It turns into a 'we,'" Johnson said. "It's got to be 'we.' They have to do it themselves. They have to want to do it."
Today Crocker is what Priority Veteran staff classifies as "LTD" -- living the dream. He's found affordable housing and the income to sustain it, and has a continuing desire to keep the direction of his life moving forward. While it's not the life he had imagined, it's one he can support as he continues to pursue other career opportunities.
"To go from training Soldiers in some of the more high tech missile systems that we offer and how to repair and operate them to serving tables is a pretty big downgrade, but a job is a job," Crocker said.
When it comes time to pay this month's rent, Crocker will even do it with a smile.
"It feels good," Crocker said. "We don't like to get help. It feels better to do things when I'm on my own."
That's the whole point, according to Burke.
"This is about empowering them," Burke said. "They've been disempowered for so long some of them, and so thoroughly."
Veterans themselves, Priority Veteran staff members know what it means to walk a mile in their clients' shoes because they've been there. Had it not been for the opening, Katrina Stinnett, senior site manager, would have literally been out on the streets herself. The struggle of living paycheck to paycheck, trying to find every dime she could muster to survive, is still fresh for Burke.
"When this job was presented to me and it was clear that this is what I was going to be doing, I just thought it was the absolute most poetic justice in the whole world," Burke said. "I was going to get out of being in that position by getting others out of being in that position."
Thanks to Priority Veteran, April 22 was moving day for Christopher and Marisa Harding, a silver lining after months of health problems and not knowing where they would sleep each night. With the help of Priority Veteran, the Hardings had their utility deposit and first month's rent paid for, and even received a queen size bed.
"It's like the weight of the world is off our shoulders," said Christopher, who served in the Coast Guard from 1979-83.
Kemo Nelson, who served in the Army from 1959-62, echoed that relief. On a fixed income, before meeting case manager Keith Perkins at Priority Veteran, housing accounted for 75 percent of his income each month. Perkins not only dropped that expense by $260 a month with a more sustainable apartment, but also ensured that Nelson's security and utility deposits were paid and that he had a cushion of two months' rent. Perkins even helped Nelson move, just one of the many examples clients can give about the ways Priority Veteran staff goes above and beyond the call of duty.
"It's a lifeline, a life change, a life altering experience -- it's very humbling," Nelson said. "It keeps you humble. I was at the point of, 'What do I do, where do I go?' It's like darned if you do, darned if you don't. It's a blessing. It means the world to me. It kept me from being homeless and ensures you have your pride and dignity. I know ego is false pride, but hey -- you've got to have some pride."