LANGLEY AIR FORCE BASE, Va. –
Homeless - the very word stirs a myriad of emotions within people. Speak it aloud within a group of strangers and watch as they avert their eyes, ignore it completely or even walk away. Homeless is a bitter word on the tongue of Americans, which is simply defined as "having no home or permanent place of residence."
Within the United States, there are roughly 636,000 individuals who can be classified as homeless - of those, about 67,500 are veterans. That means nearly 11 percent of people living on the street or in a shelter were at one time defending this nation with their lives.
"It can happen to almost anyone," said Marti Chick-Ebey, Department of Veterans Affairs: Hampton, Va. Medical Center homeless coordinator. "I've seen medical doctors, professional drag racers and incredibly successful people - all homeless. It's very humbling."
Chick-Ebey said there is a stereotype in America which reinforces the belief that homelessness can't happen to people if they work hard enough. It created a generalized image of the disheveled man with wild hair and an unkempt beard, lying on the street with a Styrofoam cup in his hand, pan-handling for money.
"You can be homeless and not be a street person," Chick Ebey said. "People who stay on a friend's couch for an extended period of time without paying rent, or bouncing from friend to friend are considered homeless."
Broadening the definition of homeless, Chick-Ebey said it is classified as having four or more episodes within three years, or sustaining one episode of homelessness lasting a year or more.
"These are the people invisible to society," said Dr. Priscilla Hankins, chief of mental health and behavioral science at the Hampton Medical Center. "They are transient, moving from home to home - out of sight. The people passing by on the street wouldn't even see them."
However, the VA has made it part of their mission to see these people and offer a helping hand. They have organized programs like Housing and Urban Development - VA Supportive Housing, which allocated funds to local public housing authorities. Between 2008 and 2011, these funds provided more than 37,000 vouchers to homeless veterans - getting them off the streets and into a stable living arrangement.
"Approximately 436 people in the local area have received vouchers from the HUD VASH program," said Lilia Adams, Hampton Medical Center HUD VASH program coordinator. "There are still vouchers available, but an individual must be registered with the VA in order to participate in the program."
Sometimes, confusion comes from the VA registration process. The VA is divided into three separate groups:
· The Veterans Benefits Administration - which deals with education benefits, home loans and other monetary matters.
· The Veterans Health Administration - dealing with mental and physical health issues, as well as long-term care.
· The National Cemetery Administration -which focuses on funeral arrangements.
If a veteran is registered with one group, they may not be registered with the others. The best option is to stop by the local VA to learn more about how to register. Additionally, homeless veterans in need of assistance can contact the 24-hour National Call Center for Homeless Veterans at (877)-4AID-VET, or reach out through social media at http://www.facebook.com/HamptonVAMC.
"We subscribe to the 'no wrong door' approach," said Hankins. "It's all about getting the veterans the help they need."
This approach has sparked a new, nationwide program, which originated at the Hampton Medical Center in 2004. Called the Primary Care Clinic, it focuses on providing all necessary services to homeless veterans during a single visit.
"We understand it's difficult for homeless veterans to find transportation," said Chick-Ebey. "The clinic tries to see the veteran the same day they are referred, or within the week."
This focus on comprehensive care is part of a national initiative to end homelessness in America. However, in order to effectively end the problem, it must first be understood as more than a generalized stereotype.
"Any one factor, the economy, joblessness, underemployment and the price of housing, can put someone at risk for homelessness," said Hankins. "Once these factors start compounding, we begin to see a true picture of the problem."
As the picture of the homeless veteran becomes clearer, the more it appears to be a diverse mosaic - composed of many factors and individual aspects, all falling under the blanket of homelessness.
"Homelessness has many faces," said Hankins. "We need to work with the individual and see just what led them to this plight. In my experience, homeless veterans aren't lazy. They want to work. They want to contribute to society and be self-sufficient."