Striving to End Homelessness Among Our Nations Veterans
By: Allison Bond, Whitney Lott and Hillary Bolter
In 2005, Sharon Pendarvis became homeless with a life spiraling out of control. An Army Veteran with 12 ½ years of service to her country and a registered nurse who had worked hard to support her family and raise her children, she began to realize she had a lot of buried military related trauma. With her children almost grown and out of the house, she had less to distract her from what was going on in her mind. Sharon had spent her adulthood pouring herself into her children and her work, and found suddenly that she could no longer cope with her worsening mental health issues. She began to have difficulty maintaining employment and became extremely self destructive resulting in multiple psychiatric hospitalizations. “When you hit that kind of bottom,” Sharon says, “You need time to just learn how to breathe again.”
Sharon found what she needed at ABCCM (Asheville Buncombe Community Christian Ministry) Steadfast House, part of the Veterans Administration’s (VA) Grant and Per Diem program. Grant and Per Diem is an important piece of the government mission to end Veteran homelessness. A homeless Veteran who is admitted to transitional housing in the Grant and Per Diem program is provided up to two years of transitional housing and case management services. Grant and Per Diem is a partnership between the VA and local agencies. In Asheville, these partnerships exist with ABCCM and FIRST at Blue Ridge, Incorporated. Sharon spent two years at Steadfast House and was able to address her mental health issues, increase her military benefits, and reintegrate into her community. Today, Sharon has her own apartment and has been living independently for a year and a half. Sharon now works part time at Steadfast House and feels like she is a mentor for women coming into the program. For Sharon, the distinguishing factor about her experience at Steadfast House to which she attributes her success is quite simply: time. “First and foremost,” she comments, “I had to feel safe. I could not do anything or be anybody if I could not feel safe. The healing time for me was 6-9 months. I needed that time to learn to trust others, but also myself. Once I began to feel like I was healing, I could focus on working towards my goals.” Sharon reports it took time for her to drop her military way of thinking and relax into the community of Steadfast House, gradually healing and making process towards independence. “It’s not what happened to you,” Sharon says, “It’s how you deal with it. Patience is often the biggest lesson learned.”
Robert Tillotson, age 24, returned home from a tour of duty in Afghanistan. Due to tough economic times, he was unable to find employment after his discharge from the Army. He and his pregnant wife became homeless, and after staying with various family members found themselves at the door of the VA Emergency Department last winter seeking help. “They talked to me to keep me calm and find out what was wrong,” Robert said of his ensuing psychiatric stay at the Charles George VA Medical Center. Social Workers assisted the couple in finding shelter at Veterans Restoration Quarters (VRQ) and Steadfast House, both operated by ABCCM. “The VRQ was a miracle in itself,” Robert said, “They pulled us off the streets in the middle of the winter, gave me food, mental stability and some friendship. The VA helped rebuild what got blew away in Afghanistan.” Robert suffers from the two signature injuries of the current conflict: Traumatic Brain Injury from an Improvised Explosive Device (IED) blast, and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Robert’s VRQ case manager assisted him with filing for both Social Security and VA compensation benefits. Social Security disability was awarded shortly before the birth of their son, Aidan, in April. In an effort to reintegrate Robert back into the work force, he was enrolled in the VA’s Compensated Work Therapy program.
During their time at the shelters, Robert and Brittney began working toward seeking permanent housing through the Housing Urban Development-VA Supportive Housing (HUD-VASH) program. HUD-VASH is a partnership between HUD and the VA. HUD offers homeless Veterans a Housing Choice Voucher, and the VA provides clinical case management support to assist Veterans with obtaining and maintaining housing. Over 170 homeless Veterans have obtained permanent supported housing in Buncombe County through the HUD-VASH program since 2008. “We got our place just in time before I had Aidan,” Brittney Tillotson said of her 1-month old son, “HUD-VASH gave him shelter and a stable home.”
With the announcement of Secretary Shinseki’s goal of ending Veteran homelessness by 2015, the Health Care for Homeless Veterans Program at the Charles George VA Medical Center has seen a tremendous amount of growth over the past few years. Currently there are 13 Licensed Clinical Social Workers who spend their time and energy to make this vision a reality for homeless Veterans living in Western North Carolina.
The Homeless Program offers an array of services to Veterans who have found themselves without a permanent residence. Homeless services to 20 counties in Western North Carolina include outreach to soup kitchens, missions, shelters and those camping outdoors. One component of outreach is to provide education to Veterans, family members, and community partners about the services that are available. Outreach is also conducted in the local jails and courts through a program known at the Veteran Justice Outreach (VJO) program. “The purpose of the VJO initiative is to avoid unnecessary criminalization of mental illness and extended incarceration among Veterans by ensuring that eligible Veterans in contact with the criminal justice system have access to Veterans Health Administration (VHA) mental health and substance abuse services,” as printed in the Secretary for Health’s Information Letter, Department of Veterans Affairs, April 30, 2009. Robert also utilized the VJO program facing misdemeanor charges. “Katie Stewart [VJO Coordinator] helped me stay out of jail and from repeating this whole process over. If they’d have locked me up they would have pulled everything out from under me,” he said.
“The VA has helped in every way. I have a house, I’m mentally stable, I can be myself. I am finally myself again,” Robert said. “This is the best VA that we’ve been to,” Brittney said, “People bend over backwards to help Veterans.”
Photo: Robert & Brittney Tillotson and baby Aidan