By Arthur Mondale, Pentagram Staff WriterFebruary 2, 2017
Willie Blakey is an Army veteran who endured two tours of uncertainty while serving in Vietnam. More than four decades later, the veteran still faces a life of uncertainty and a struggle.
"Unbelievable is the best way to describe my living situation," Blakey said. "It's a day-to-day struggle, I'm relatively homeless. I live from place to place to place, from family member to family member, shelter to shelter -- who's going to let me stay at their house tonight?"
Blakey isn't the only veteran in the D.C. metropolitan area tackling that question daily. While the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs estimates a 47 percent decrease in the number of homeless veterans nationwide since 2010, Blakey isn't very much alone. And top Veterans Affairs officials remain committed to ending homelessness in D.C.-metro and nationwide.
On Jan. 28 the Washington D.C., VA Medical Center held a Winterhaven Homeless Veterans Stand Down. Volunteers from over 60 community organizations and government agencies volunteered their time and service, transforming the medical center into a one-stop shop and resource haven for veterans in immediate and imminent need.
In addition to warm meals, care packages, toiletries, blankets, boots and warm clothing, homeless and underemployed veterans also received health and vision assessments, HIV testing, dental exams, employment and education counseling, legal aid, financial planning, substance abuse and rehabilitative counseling, as well as one-on-one sessions with mental health professionals.
"A stand down like this is everything -- it's getting people jobs, health care -- the benefits they deserve," said Dr. David J. Shulkin, under secretary for health for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and chief executive of the Veterans Health Administration.
Shulkin said the VA is dedicated to placing resources under one roof until veteran homelessness is eradicated.
"The VA is committed as an organization that serves veterans to do this in every part of the country," he said. "All across the country you're going to see groups of communities come together in [medical centers] with their staff and employees to make sure that we can end veteran homelessness."
Furthermore, ending veteran homelessness requires commitment, collaboration and outreach, Shulkin said, and includes engagement with federal, state and local partners to address the spectrum of veterans from the chronically homeless to the underemployed.
The American Postal Workers Union comprised of United States Postal Service, current and former employees, were just one of a long roster of partners at the stand down.
"We provided survival items to not only homeless veterans, but to at-risk and transitional veterans as well," said Susan Carney, National Human Relations director for the American Postal Workers Union. For example, Carney and her team provided dishes and utensils to transitional veterans.
"It's about dignity and respect for all veterans -- our workforce was comprised at one point of 25 percent veterans," Carney said in reference to the personal commitment the American Postal Workers Union has in seeing veteran homelessness end. Moreover, the union provided $50,000 to $60,000 worth of goods to veterans during the event, she said.
"Anyone can end up on the receiving end of this situation," said Elizabeth Powell, American Postal Workers Union secretary and treasurer. "It can happen to any one of us at any time."
Sentiments echoed by Army First Sgt. Wayne Brown, who works full time at the National Guard Bureau, and donates his off-duty time at the non-profit, The Mission Continues. Brown served as a "director" in the main corridor of the D.C., VA Medical Center's first-floor, ensuring no visiting veteran was either lost or absent from much needed services.
"I've engaged with a wide net of people as a volunteer here and elsewhere -- young people who just got out of the service to people who are in their 60s, 70s and 80s who are homeless -- the reality is there's a large, disproportionate number of service members who just aren't or weren't prepared to exit the service," Brown said. "There's this mentality that service members are invincible. That's just not true."
Tony Coombs, president and CEO of Dymentum Health heard first-hand about the breaking point and uncertainty experienced by some homeless veterans during one-on-one behavioral health evaluations and testing.
"It's not only about an early diagnosis for depression, schizophrenia and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, for example, but education is also important, and the availability to seek treatment is also important," Coombs said. "Education leads to self-preservation and stability."
"It's about combating barriers to employment," said Ted Spencer, who provides career counseling for the Virginia Employment Commission and turned doctors offices inside the VA medical center into make-shift unemployment offices. Alongside the District of Columbia Department of Employment Services and Montgomery County One Stop (Maryland Department of Labor).
"We're all here to connect the dots from job development to employment training to gainful employment," Spencer said.
Whether the need is employment, behavioral health, food or shelter, Air Force Reserve Capt. Timothy Underwood, founder and president of Hope One Source and his team are the creators of a geo-location text messaging service and app that connects homeless veterans with career and social services. The service was launched one year ago with the support of the District of Columbia's Inter agency Council on Homelessness.
"There are approximately 70 government and non-government service providers assisting the veteran population using our service," Underwood said. "We provide a text messaging-based platform where service providers are able to send messages to veterans who need them. Text messages that are unique to their very needs. Over the past year we were able to register over 5 percent of the Washington, D.C., population experiencing homelessness."
People can register in as little as three to five minutes using a computer, cell phone or an electronic tablet, and immediately receive notifications of nearby services unique to their needs and location. Underwood and his team of developers gladly connected many attendees at the stand down to the service. Also assisting Underwood's team was D.C. City Council-at-large member Robert White, Jr., who wrote on Facebook: I'm honored to work with Hope One Source to help Veterans in the District access local services and listen to their many stories.
But Underwood admitted there's no "silver bullet" to ending homelessness in Washington, D.C., or nationwide as of yet.
"The leadership in Washington, D.C., realizes that affordable housing is the most critical piece of this issue," Underwood said.
The Department of Veterans Affairs has unveiled a strategy to increase the number of veterans moving from the streets into permanent housing over the next 60 days. To learn more about veteran homelessness, see www.va.gov/Homeless/.
Pentagram Staff Writer Arthur Mondale can be reached at email@example.com.