ALBANY — According to the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans, there are an estimated 50,000 homeless veterans in the United States on any given night with about 1.4 million others at risk of becoming homeless. The risk for homelessness often stems from substandard housing, poverty and lack of help from family or social support networks.
Veterans are also at twice the risk than the general population of becoming chronically homeless. Homeless veterans from the Vietnam War era outnumber the soldiers who died during that war, and female vets are four times more likely to become homeless than male vets.
While the plight of homeless veterans currently accounts for only about 9 percent of the veteran population, those numbers are increasing, especially in the south. Winter months also tend to increase the transient homeless population in south Georgia and Florida.
This month, an agency that has successfully provided housing assistance and several other support services to veterans and other at-risk families and individuals in Florida’s Panhandle announced it will open offices in several south Georgia cities, including Albany.
Matt Peterson, program director for the 90Works organization in north Florida, is overseeing the organization’s expansion into Georgia. The program is funded through the Veteran’s Administration under a grant to provide support services to veterans’ families.
“Our expansion into Georgia began on Oct. 15 with the opening of an office in Valdosta,” Peterson said. “Our second office, in Albany, came on Nov. 1. Our concentration right now is to serve a total of 52 counties in Georgia. Although we provide many services to veterans and non-veterans in north Florida, here in Georgia we will work specifically with veterans by getting them into housing and providing them with support services.”
Peterson said the veteran housing program in north Florida served 350 clients last year.
Michael Ivey is the program manager for the Valdosta office, and Krystal Mason is the program manager for the 90Works office in Albany, located at 100-A Washington St.
While both offices are already serving clients, Peterson said they will be more fully operational in the next 30 days.
Mason said the Albany office has already hired an outreach manager and plans to hire four case managers as quickly as possible. There also is an immediate opening for a data manager at the Albany office.
According to research published by Veterans Inc., combat-related physical and mental health issues, weak social networks, and a lack of services for help in areas where returning vets live contribute to the homelessness of that population. Research shows that nearly half of all homeless veterans in the U.S. served during the Vietnam War. Homeless veterans date as far back as World War II and served in Korea, Grenada, Lebanon, the Persian Gulf, Afghanistan and Iraq.
Many veterans fall into homelessness or poverty because the skills they learned in the military aren’t transferable to the civilian work force. Post-traumatic stress disorder and substance abuse frequently contribute to problems that lead to homelessness or the risk of homelessness for veterans.
90Works was founded in 1983 as a not-for-profit corporation in accordance with the laws of the state of Florida. The organization’s primary purpose was to provide services and education for abused and neglected children and their families in Escambia, Santa Rosa, Okaloosa, Walton and Bay counties. Formerly known as Families Count, the organization was rebranded as 90Works in 2014 to focus on its 90-day self-sufficiency model. Keeping the welfare of children and families at its core, 90Works pioneered a self-sufficiency model to address the underlying causes of abuse and neglect.
The organization comprises six major service programs aimed at meeting the needs of in-crisis and vulnerable populations. The programs provided in Florida include emergency shelter grants, family support teams, healthy families, marketplace navigator, the Panhandle Warrior Project, and supportive services for veteran families. In north Florida, 90Works employs a team of 70 social workers, nurses and other business professionals to provide veteran services.
Peterson said the program in Albany will use its 90-day self-sufficiency model to help veterans transition home from service and to help homeless veterans or veterans at risk of becoming homeless transition into work and housing.
“The 90 day self-sufficiency model we use is our own model, which is patented and proven to work,” Peterson said.
Added Mason, “First, we do an intake and determine eligibility, then our case managers work with them to find suitable, affordable housing. We provide deposits, first month’s rent, utility deposits — all they will need to become stabilized.”
To determine eligibility, the prospective client must bring his or her DD214 form showing dates of service, and they must have at least one day of active military service past their basic training, Mason said.
“Even if you are not sure, you should come to the office with your paperwork to see if you qualify,” he said.
Veterans who are at risk of becoming homeless should bring in a three-day eviction notice and their military discharge papers. They will go through the same intake process. Case managers will attempt to speak with landlords to establish mediation and avoid eviction, Mason said.
“We can pay the rental arrears and help the veteran avoid future problems by helping them work through whatever may have caused them to fall behind in their rent,” he said.
Through the 90Works model, case managers will assist clients with budgeting and will assist them in finding employment, medical help, addiction counseling and other types of services that will help them break through barriers that may be contributing to their current living situation.
Not all of the services veterans may need are conducted in-house, Mason said. Instead, the organization relies on building partnerships with community service providers. Mason said 90Works is actively looking to connect with churches, shelters, feeding centers, medical clinics, employment offices, VA offices, American Legions and other places that can send veterans to them for assistance and partner with them to help veterans become self-sufficient.
“This is not the kind of work that any one person, group or agency can do alone,” Mason said. “It is a huge job, and it takes a collaborative response.”
Another long-term housing program for veterans is offered by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development-VA Supportive Housing. It is a collaborative program between HUD and the VA that combines HUD housing vouchers with VA supportive services to help veterans who are homeless and their families find and sustain permanent housing.
Mason said 90Works officials are familiar with that program but it differs from what the organization has to offer.
“We offer a short-term self-sufficiency program to get veterans into housing,” he said.
Meanwhile, Don Norman, the membership director for American Legion Post 30 in Albany, said he is on location every weekday and he’s not aware of any homeless veterans coming to the Legion for help.
“We do assist with light bills each year until the money runs out,” Norman said. “As for homeless veterans, I don’t think any have even come in here asking for a cup of coffee. But, then again, unless they said so, how would I know if they are homeless? I do know that years ago we had a bunch of men, including veterans, sleeping up under the bridge here in Albany.
“I wish we did know of homeless veterans around here because we sure would try to help them.”
Jamie Hurst, a community advocate who works with the homeless, said she has seen the number of homeless veterans in Albany increase significantly over the past 10 to 15 years.
“We don’t see a lot of transients, but we do see a lot of people who have become homeless due to physical or emotional circumstances. They become homeless and they seem to stay here, in the same area, for some reason,” Hurst said.
Fay Turney, social services director for the Salvation Army in Albany, is the wife of a veteran.
“They do need help with housing,” she said. “We have housed veterans here at our shelter, but they do need more options and as far as I know there are no nearby shelters or housing services specifically for veterans.”
Turney, who has worked at the Salvation Army in Albany for the past 10 years, said she is seeing a steady increase in the number of homeless veterans.
“They come in for food, clothing vouchers, laundry services and for housing,” she said. “There just is not a lot of housing help for them.”
Turney said group homes and shelters are not always good options for veterans, especially those who suffer from PTSD.
“Many of our veterans are chronically homeless,” she said. “Many suffer from PTSD, so they are not suitable for dorm-type housing. They would rather sleep in an abandoned building, on a friend’s sofa or out in the woods by themselves. We can feed them and clothe them and help them the best we can, but they do need more services and more options when it comes to housing.”
Turney said the Salvation Army also sees numerous veterans in need of transportation to and from Dublin, where they can connect with VA services.
“The VA used to come here and meet with them but not in a long time,” she said. “They used to send transportation to our office to pick up veterans and transport them up to Dublin for medical care. We don’t know why the transportation service has stopped, but we do know there are a lot of veterans on the streets who need to get up there to see about housing and medical care.”
Several attempts were made to contact the VA office on Broad Avenue in Albany for comment, but no one answered the phone and no one returned calls. In Americus, a VA office worker provided contact information for regional VA spokesperson Brian Zeringue.
Zeringue said he was not aware that transportation to Dublin, which he said typically is provided through the Disabled American Veterans, had stopped. Zeringue said that he would look into the ongoing availability of transportation for veterans in Albany. He also said he will find out why it is hard reach workers at the Albany VA office.