Homes for heroes
A national initiative aims to end veteran homelessness in Tulsa by Dec. 31 and chronic homelessness by the end of 2016.
Sondra Smith is an Army veteran who lives in housing provided to her through Mental Health Association Oklahoma, an organization that donates 12 percent of its units to veterans. It is also one of 23 agencies participating in the Zero: 2016 Tulsa initiative striving to end veteran homelessness by Dec. 31 and chronic homelessness by Dec. 31, 2016.
Since June, Sondra Smith has possessed something that eluded her for years — a home.
When she was in her 30s, the 48-year-old found herself divorced with no place to live, no education and no transportation. A homelessness prevention group provided her with a house. Five years ago, the house burned.
After the fire, she lived in an abusive situation, never working or traveling more than a mile from the place she lived. She never felt at ease and never felt she could put down roots.
“When someone would ask me, ‘Where is your home?’ I realized I didn’t have one,” Smith says, wiping tears. “I was homeless. Home is so much more than a roof. It’s safety and comfort, like a warm blanket.”
Smith represents the new face of homelessness — not a man under a bridge, but women, children and men of all ages who sleep in cars, on friends’ couches, in campsites and at motels.
Another fact about Smith’s history might be surprising: She is a veteran. She enlisted in the Army as soon as she turned 18 and served as a sergeant in the military police for five years in Germany.
Smith is one of the success stories of a new nationwide campaign called Zero: 2016, which seeks to end veteran homelessness by the end of this year and end chronic homelessness by the end of 2016.
The initiative brings together a variety of community groups to focus not only on providing housing, but also mental health assistance, medical care and substance abuse treatment to support the veterans. Plus, Zero: 2016 aims to create public awareness of a problem that communities often would rather ignore. Tulsa is one of 75 communities chosen to participate.
Working downtown, Tulsa County Commissioner Karen Keith is well aware of the issues surrounding homelessness. She says the commissioners and Tulsa City Council all jumped on board the proclamations to endorse the Zero: 2016 Tulsa initiative.
“It does take resources and it takes patience and convincing people that you can live differently,” Keith says. “It’s a big goal, but it’s something that needs to be done.”
Smith now lives in an apartment managed by Mental Health Association Oklahoma, which devotes 12 percent of its units to veterans. While she’s not proud of her situation, Smith says she’s glad to talk about it to bring a problem to light.
“You think of the dirty, smelly man on the corner,” she says. “That’s not the face of homelessness. It’s the clerk at the grocery store that you chat with. But they don’t want you to know because they’re so ashamed.
“The guy on the corner went from homelessness to hopelessness. And without programs like these, that’s not a hard slope to slide down. Without these programs, I’d be where he is.”
According to the New York-based nonprofit Community Solutions, Zero: 2016’s national organizer, about 84,000 Americans are chronically homeless on any given night. Just under 50,000 of those are veterans. Homeless individuals face drastically reduced life expectancies and account for huge public costs in emergency rooms. Roughly 6,500 individuals — many of them veterans — flow through Tulsa shelters annually, according to the Tulsa City and County Continuum of Care Homeless Management Information System.
Community Solutions set the Zero: 2016 goal to reach “functional zero” by the end of the year. Functional zero equates to more housing units available than the number who need them. For Tulsa, that means housing and making additional units available for 290 veterans. Ninety-five additional units for those experiencing chronic homelessness will be added by the end of 2016.
Veterans tend to be at risk of homelessness for a variety of reasons.
Smith points to the fact that the military provided her housing, meals, training and employment. But when it was time to leave, she wasn’t prepared to review a lease or stick to a budget.
Another veteran, Gwadelle O’Neal, came to rely on the teamwork she experienced in the Army. When she left, she realized that the civilian world was full of selfish people and those who got by on who they knew rather than training and teamwork.
Returning to the civilian world can be jarring, O’Neal says.
“When you have to come back to what you already left, it destroys you,” she says.
While O’Neal became a military expert at handling hazardous materials and repairing weapons, gas masks and hydraulics, she had trouble converting that training to a civilian résumé, let alone present her training in a way a civilian employer would understand.
The training received in the military is job- specific, and most jobs have an equal translation to civilian occupations, says Parrish McDaris, an Army veteran who works as the director of program development and veteran services with Volunteers of America Oklahoma, one of 23 organizations working on Zero: 2016 Tulsa. But, the barrier veterans face most often is a lack of understanding or acceptance of their capability to perform those civilian jobs or that their education is equally relevant to the civilian version of their military education.
“The military teaches you a completely different set of values and language to do your job than what you experience in a civilian setting,” O’Neal says. “In the military we all believed in the mission above ourselves and would do anything we could to reach our goals. In the civilian world everyone is on their own mission, and it makes it hard for military members to adjust.”
On top of the skills and teamwork vacuum are the emotional hardships that come with military service. Since Sept. 11, 2001, soldiers have faced a new set of traumas with multiple deployments, says Chris Tennefos, who works with veterans through Volunteers of America Oklahoma.
After leaving the service, there isn’t much time for many vets to secure housing, work, education and mental health treatment. Veterans who are unable to understand and process this information typically need help developing a plan for the future.
All these factors can contribute to homelessness, a reality that can be difficult for veterans to handle, and that often takes away the veteran’s pride and honor they attained through their service, says Mark Lounsbury, a Marine combat veteran who works as a business liaison with Volunteers of America Oklahoma.
“It’s all about ‘mission accomplished’ and the drive to succeed in the military,” Lounsbury says. “When you get out, all that support system is gone. You figure out that you’re human and can fail. Failure is not acceptable in military culture, and many who experience failures, whether in the military or when they become civilians, struggle to accept this reality. And the next thing you know, you’re homeless.”
Luckily, there is a growing determination in the United States to protect service members.
“I think regardless of what era or generation we live in, we all believe our veterans should be treated with respect and dignity,” says Mike Brose, executive director of Mental Health Association Oklahoma. “This is a universal concept that our organization upholds, and we seek to hold a mirror to our community and say that we are not doing our service members justice if they, at any point in their lives, become homeless and are not integrated back into the fabric of our community and civilian life.”
No single solution can help homeless veterans, according to McDaris. They need housing first, then emotional support, job training, medical care, mental health treatment, dental care, an updated résumé, camaraderie and more, all at varying levels. In Tulsa, the Zero: 2016 effort is coordinated through the 23-member A Way Home for Tulsa (AWH4T) coalition, a continuum of care that provides wraparound services to invidivuals experiencing homelessness. The coalition consists of local nonprofit agencies, including Volunteers of America Oklahoma; representatives from federal, state and local governments; corporations; and philanthropic organizations.
As a member of AWH4T, the VOA’s Homeless Veterans Reintegration Program provides essential support in reaching functional zero, the primary goal of Zero: 2016 Tulsa, Parrish says. In order to maintain a functional zero for homeless veterans, employment plays a critical role as a central support structure that stabilizes veterans, allowing them the opportunity to imagine and realize a future without homelessness.
“It’s harder to put the pieces back together after they’ve all fallen apart,” McDaris says. “So, we’re trying to reduce the time between a need for services and the time all can be restored. Each one of our agencies offers a critical piece to that puzzle.”
The failed strategy of yesteryear was making the homeless get clean and sober, get on medication and then be eligible for housing, according to Commmunity Solutions. Today, the “housing first” model is an evidence-based practice that moves people off the streets into permanent, supportive housing. To make sure they’re successful, Zero: 2016 partners surround the formerly homeless individuals with the additional services they need.
For example, a group called Fresh Start meets regulary to connect veterans and other chronically homeless individuals with services to aid in housing. Mack Haltom, associate director of the Tulsa Day Center for the Homeless, is a member of the group that has met since 2010. From the larger Fresh Start group, these front line workers identify an individual and approach their needs as a group — whether it’s financial assistance, a mental health diagnosis or housing need, for example — and together they meet the person’s needs to get them into a stable and safe situation.
The Zero: 2016 initiative has injected energy into the process.
“I think sometimes you can get into the rut of what we’re doing, and the national initiative gave us the challenge as a city,” Haltom says. “It challenged me.
“I just felt that in Tulsa — if we all get behind something — we could really make an impact on homelessness.”
Volunteers of America now has a whole department of military veterans who provide mentoring relationships to fellow veterans, especially regarding employment, training and coordination of services.
Each of those pieces has come together for O’Neal, a 35-year-old mother of five. She became pregnant at 16 and entered the Florida National Guard at 23 after earning a GED. After one year in the Guard, she served on active duty in Europe for two years. Then she was stationed in Alaska, and shortly after left the service for family reasons. Her husband was unable to find employment during their transition to Alaska, and when O’Neal was discharged, employment opportunities were scarce.
She and her husband tried living with family. Then they moved to a mobile home, but they refused to pay the rent until the landlord fixed a mold problem. Soon, they were evicted. They lost two cars and eventually were living in a friend’s house with eight children and four adults under one roof. Money was very tight and meals were sparse. At that time, the family searched for support programs.
A Community Service Council program called Barrier Removal and Residence Exchange for Veterans, typically called BRRX4Vets, helped O’Neal; her husband, who now works as an electrician; and children find a four-bedroom home with a fireplace and wood floors in Wagoner. Built in 1948, the white frame house meets all their needs. Through the Supportive Services for Veteran Families grant, BRRX4Vets provided two months of assistance for her family.
“I really can’t express the happiness I feel,” O’Neal says. “My babies are so happy.”
She realizes she has other struggles. Besides receiving veteran’s assistance, she wants to have a job.
“I have had so much trauma,” she says. “I want to wake up one day and pursue happiness.”
A tight deadline
Is eliminating veteran homelessness by the end of the year realistic? And will Tulsa really eliminate chronic homelessness by the end of next year?
The experts say yes.
According to statistics from Community Solutions, Tulsa is on target for meeting both goals.
“People used to laugh at me when I’d say we can end homelessness and veteran homelessness,” Brose says. “Nobody’s laughing anymore. We can do this together.”
In 2016, the national Zarrow Mental Health Symposium will be presented in partnership between Community Solutions and Mental Health Association Oklahoma. The symposium will educate attendees about housing, clinical and recovery support, along with innovative solutions to homelessness. Other communities are invited to Tulsa to discuss the progress made nationwide and what is left to do.
There is one nagging question: What about the guys with the signs? The ones that say “Homeless Vet — Anything Helps.”
Brose says there will always be new people who become homeless and need access to services, but the people panhandling usually are not the ones who need help.
“They usually are not homeless,” he says. “They’re trying to turn fast cash for alcohol and other substances. We’re encouraging that behavior by handing money out the car window. We strongly discourage people from giving to panhandlers and people holding signs.”
Rather than a dollar, panhandlers need a comprehensive system to rebuild their lives. Still, passersby feel the need to help, so Brose wants to develop a phone number concerned citizens can call when they see someone on the street they’re worried about.
Brose also says a portion of the homeless do not feel comfortable coming into the shelter system, so they live in an encampment of two to four people. They may have a pet that would not be allowed in a shelter, or they may feel too restricted.
That’s why Tulsa is developing a system to help with a variety of needs and make more housing available for those who haven’t yet accessed the system, Brose says.
As for Smith, the veteran who has an apartment and a part-time job, she says she’s not exactly where she wants to be yet, but for the first time in years, she’s on the right track.
“There’s a combination of things that get you into a situation,” Smith says. “And there’s a combination that can get me out.”
While not a member of A Way Home for Tulsa, Disabled American Veterans connects veterans with a service officer and a chaplain. The DAV team determines whether the veteran is receiving benefits from the Department of Veterans Affairs and helps the veteran file claims and enroll in the VA’s medical program.
“It’s a confusing system once you find out about it,” says Danny Oliver, state adjutant for the DAV. “We have veterans who don’t even know they’re eligible for benefits because they didn’t lose a leg or an arm. So, we are elated to see this be in the spotlight.”
Each veteran’s needs are addressed on a case-by-case basis. Sometimes that means the DAV can provide a hotel stay while the team works toward a more permanent housing solution, and the chaplain can take the veteran shopping or to appointments.
Agencies helping veterans obtain housing
These 23 core groups comprise the A Way Home For Tulsa coalition and are supported by a variety of other community participants.
12 & 12
Community Service Council
Counseling & Recovery Services of Oklahoma
Domestic Violence Intervention Services
Family & Children’s Services
John 3:16 Mission
Legal Aid Services of Oklahoma Inc.
Mental Health Association Oklahoma
Morton Comprehensive Health Services
Participant Advisory Group
Tulsa County Social Services
Tulsa Day Center for the Homeless
Tulsa Housing Authority
Tulsa Regional Chamber
Volunteers of America
Youth Services of Tulsa
Department of Veteran Affairs
City of Tulsa — Grants Department