From Homecoming to Homeless?

Posted on July 26, 2011

On the evening of July 14th, I welcomed my brother, who serves as a pilot, home from a six-month deployment aboard the aircraft carrier Enterprise. My three-year old daughter and I waited anxiously in the hangar with my parents, as well as my brother’s eight-month pregnant wife and his two small children. Finally, my brother and the rest of his squadron approached in their planes and performed a flyover. As I watched the planes land, the canopies open in unison, and these travel-weary young pilots get roses to hand to their anxiously waiting wives and families, I could hardly contain my pride and joy. However, I could not help but wonder how many of these men would soon face what so many veterans in this country are forced to experience: homelessness. 

The United States Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) estimates that there are already more than 9,000 Iraq and Afghanistan vets who have been homeless. New research is showing that this group of veterans is becoming homeless much more quickly than veterans from Vietnam. On average, it took Vietnam-era veterans eight to ten years to progress from military life to homelessness; recent data indicates that present-day soldiers are ending up on the streets within a year of coming back to the States. Increases in redeployments, combat stress, and brain injuries have all contributed to this rapid fall into homelessness for veterans. In addition, our country is not fully prepared to deal with the mental health and basic living needs of these veterans. With an increase in women serving in the armed forces, there has also been an increase in women vets, many of whom have children. 

The VA has been very forthcoming with data about this problem and has vowed to do something about it. While most communities, including Richmond, have launched ten-year plans to reduce and end homelessness, the VA has committed to end veteran homelessness in five years. It has also begun to develop and target new funding streams to make this happen. Historically, the VA’s limited funding for homeless vets had been focused on transitional housing and services; this provided a “Band-Aid” to veterans experiencing homelessness, but it did little to provide the permanent housing those individuals needed. 

However, in 2008, the VA partnered with the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to develop the Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing (VASH) program. In this program, veterans who meet certain guidelines can receive a rental subsidy for housing, as well as case management to assist them with maintaining their permanent housing. And in 2010, the federal government approved funding for the Supportive Services for Veterans Families (SSVF) program. This new VA program will award grants to private non-profits and consumer cooperatives to provide supportive services to very low-income veterans and their families residing in or transitioning to permanent housing. The grantees will provide a range of supportive services designed to promote housing stability.

As a leader in permanent supportive housing in both Richmond and South Hampton Roads, Virginia Supportive Housing (VSH) has been actively involved in these new funding streams, in addition to serving numerous veterans in our existing programs. Because the HUD VASH funding stream is not able to cover security and utility deposits, VSH was able to use Federal Stimulus Funds to cover this cost, allowing qualified veterans and their families access to this vital resource. In addition, VSH was recently awarded $84,000 through the Virginia Wounded Warrior Program; this funding will be used to provide housing and services to veterans in our existing programs. Finally, VSH served as the lead applicant for a Richmond community application for the SSVF funds, as well a partner agency in an application submitted in South Hampton Roads. This funding will allow VSH to begin to both prevent and homelessness in ways that specifically target veterans and their families. 

Are these measures enough to end homelessness among veterans? Only time will tell. I sincerely hope that soon there will not be another veteran in this country who has to spend a night on the street. These brave individuals volunteered their time and well-being to protect mine; I just hope that through VSH, I am able to return the favor.

An Opportunity To Celebrate Our Shared Humanity

Posted on July 21, 2011

This week’s blog was condensed from a sermon delivered at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church on July 17 by The Rev. Deacon Barbara Ambrose.

My husband John and I often enjoy visiting Washington DC during the Christmas holidays to see all the decorations, visit museums and try out a new restaurant or two.  It is not unusual for us to stroll downtown in the evenings when homeless people are emerging to set up sleeping areas in the doorways and niches of buildings closed for the night.  It is surreal to be sharing the sidewalk with expensively dressed people heading to warm environments and nourishing meals and then look down and see another human being in deep sleep under blankets and plastic sheeting surrounded by all that they possess. Responding to these situations is difficult – I have felt powerless to do anything other than pray for the homeless person as I pass and wonder how human beings can live in such desperate conditions in the midst of so much wealth, power, and beauty.

Of course one need not travel as far as Washington to experience the reality of homelessness.  For decades Richmond’s population has included people who make their home on the streets.  Many suffer with mental and physical illnesses that impede their ability to make a living or different choices.  Numerous groups work tirelessly to assist these most vulnerable members of society, but there is also a tacit effort to keep “the homeless” in designated areas.  In recent months great controversy erupted as plans to improve Monroe Park included vanquishing the homeless individuals living there, removing them along with debris and pushing them ever further toward the margins of society.

Maybe it is our human nature to establish artificial constructs of “good” and “bad” and then to separate out the bad.  As children, the criteria for separation may be the way someone dresses or the color of their hair.  Disabilities can also render children the target of scorn and estrangement from their classmates.  As we get older the lines of demarcation are just as arbitrary – athletic prowess, intellect, or career path.   And disability, mental illness or chronic medical conditions often remain as lines of separation.

Throughout the Gospels, Jesus makes it quite clear that the job of judging our fellow human beings will fall to the angels and not to us. As Matthew’s Parable of the Weeds (Matthew 13:24) demonstrates, it is not our job to determine which plants should remain in the field and which should be removed. But I do believe that we are expected to tend the field – keep it watered and nurtured so that it remains a fertile ground for the plants to flourish and mature.

The Oregon Hill Neighborhood [where St. Andrews is located] is one such field, and we have long been aware that our community includes homeless people.  While many within this congregation have longed for the ability to confront the challenge of homelessness in a meaningful and loving way, the path has seemed ambiguous and daunting.  Fortunately an opportunity to participate in a city-wide initiative has emerged, and there has been some exciting planning underway to participate in 1000 Homes for 1000 Virginians – Richmond campaign. This project’s goal is to systematically locate and interview every chronically homeless person in Richmond and include them in a registry that will be used to provide housing to those in the most need as it becomes available.  Virginia Supportive Housing and Homeward are the two agencies leading this initiative, along with the Virginia Coalition to End Homelessness. The advantage of partnering with them is that they have the resources and expertise to develop and facilitate a comprehensive program that can make a substantive impact in lives of chronically homeless individuals.  With their guidance we can engage in specific tasks that will contribute to this very ambitious undertaking.

After training on July 31, a group from our parish will go out into our neighborhood on three consecutive mornings to locate and interview our homeless brothers and sisters so they can be included in the registry.  Volunteers are also needed to compile the information gathered by teams throughout the city, help manage the central command center, and support everyone involved with this project.

While registry week is the focus of this initial “mission trip at home” it is only a beginning.  This is an opportunity to cross that elusive line that has challenged our engagement with homeless people residing in our community.  Each of us can discern how we might be called to follow that path to tend our field and ensure that every plant growing here has a chance to flourish.  Hopefully our efforts will enable some who live on the streets of our community to eventually move to their own homes, and as we grow in relationship with them we can help facilitate those transitions, all the while celebrating our shared humanity as children of the kingdom.

A VSH Volunteer Shares Her Thoughts

Posted on July 12, 2011

This blog was written by Lauren Porter, Account Manager for Snag-a-Job and VSH volunteer extraordinaire

For years, I passed homeless individuals in my car as I went about my daily life. I remember thinking that it would be great if there was some type of program or organization that would assist people who wanted to get off the streets and reenter society with a job and a home. My heart would reach out them, but I didn’t know what I could do to help.

Then in 2008, I was introduced to Virginia Supportive Housing through Affordable Housing Week. I signed up for a landscaping event and was able to help out a couple families living in VSH housing by revitalizing their yard. Through this event, I learned about VSH’s mission of providing permanent housing to chronically homeless folks and helping them find jobs so they could contribute to society. It was great to find an organization working to help this under-served population, and I decided I wanted to serve in any way I could.

Since that first volunteer event, I have had the privilege of participating in and hosting other landscaping events, painting projects, and job-searching educational events, which have been some of the most rewarding moments of my life. I think so often there are preconceived notions about why people are homeless – that it is their fault, that they deserve to be there and if they wanted to be off the streets they could be. But the truth is that most of them are just like us – one lost job, one bad decision and it could be you or me without a home.

In my latest volunteer opportunity with VSH, I was able to meet an awesome individual named Tony. Through our time together, I got to hear his story about how he became homeless, as well as what his goals were now that he was trying to get on the right track through VSH. I loved how funny and personable he was even while he was dealing with the difficulties of finding a job and a recent diagnosis of diabetes. And I was just overwhelmed when I thought that if there wasn’t an organization like VSH, he wouldn’t be where he was today.

People are normally quick to help out volunteer organizations that involve children or special needs groups, and there is nothing wrong with that. They need volunteers too. However, I think too often we shy away from helping adults that need a second chance. All I can say is give it one shot – if you volunteer with this organization, it will change your life. And while it’s changing your life, you will be helping change someone else’s life, as well as our community and our country. Can you imagine if we were able to get the majority of our homeless population in the U.S. self-sufficient and contributing to society? Imagine what that would do for an economic rebound! And imagine what it would do for the city where you live! All I can say is thank you to VSH for all you do, and I look forward to continuing to support you however I can.

To serve as a volunteer for our upcoming 1000 Homes for 1000 Virginians campaign or for other ongoing service opportunities through VSH, just click here!

Tweeting Their Way Into Our Lives

Posted on July 6, 2011

This blog was written by VSH’s summer PR intern, James Denison

Recently, a CNN article brought the idea of homeless individuals using Twitter to national prominence. When they became homeless, Rd Plasschaert and AnnMarie Walsh started Twitter accounts as ways to release their feelings and search for information. However, their tweets eventually led to permanent housing when they caught the eyes of case managers and concerned individuals. Mark Horvath, who has experienced homelessness himself and who helped Plasschaert find housing, later started WeAreVisible as a way to inform homeless folks about social media and give them a platform to share their stories.

WeAreVisible inspired three interns at a New York advertising agency to create Underheard in New York; they gave four homeless men prepaid cell phone and taught them how to use Twitter. In a month of tweeting, the four men each gained about 2,000 followers; they were also showered with encouragement and gifts. One man, Danny, even used social media to reunite with his daughter and grandchildren, whom he hadn’t seen in more than a decade.

These stories are inspiring; everyone can be glad that Danny was able to find his daughter and that Plasschaert and Walsh are housed now. And with the advent of WeAreVisible, more and more homeless folks will probably start accessing social media as a way to share their lives with others. As Danny told one of the Underheard interns, he always had wanted to tell his story, but he hadn’t before because he thought nobody would be interested.

But these social media initiatives emphasize an underlying irony. Danny’s story was waiting to be told the whole time. Twitter gave him a way to package and publicize his feelings, but it didn’t change the content of his story in the slightest. Why is it that we want to hear about him now that his thoughts are neatly packaged into 140-character limits? Why is it that we walk past destitute individuals on the streets without even acknowledging them, but we offer encouraging words and job tips to homeless folks over the Internet? Is Twitter a nice, sterilized way to deal to homeless people without actually having to meet them, or smell them, or touch them?

Twitter is a powerful tool that can give homeless people a voice and allow them to network and make connections. But we as a society should already be listening to these individuals; they shouldn’t feel like they need a Twitter in order to be heard. For every tech-savvy homeless person who uses Twitter to share his feelings, there are dozens of others who lack the know-how or access to social media. We can – and should – always bring a listening, meek spirit when we interact with homeless folks, whether we’re on Twitter or on the street corner.

For a year, VSH has been using Twitter to connect with homeless individuals and service providers, including WeAreVisible. To find us on Twitter, click here. We also provide a wide range of tangible assistance to homeless individuals, including housing, mental health support, and financial workshops. Whether through social media or physical housing, our goal is to transform and give a voice to formerly forgotten lives.

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