Veterans homelessness declining but addressing issues is not simple

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Rebecca Lewis, 59, lacked direction after she was honorably discharged from the army in 1986. After years of intermittent homeless, Lewis moved to Cheyenne and connected to the city’s office of Veterans Affairs, where she was able to collect her disability income and connect with assistance to find housing.
Rebecca Lewis, 59, lacked direction after she was honorably discharged from the army in 1986. After years of intermittent homeless, Lewis moved to Cheyenne and connected to the city’s office of Veterans Affairs, where she was able to collect her disability income and connect with assistance to find housing.

By Bill McCarthy, WyoFile.com


Rebecca Lewis of Cheyenne is a success story in the Department of Veterans Affairs effort to end homelessness among the nation’s military veterans by 2015.

The 59-year-old Florida native spent many years of intermittent homelessness, mostly in the South, after leaving the Army during the Cold War years.

Her father spent his career in the Air Force, but that was not the right path for her.

“I knew I wasn’t going to go for 20 (years and a career)” when she joined the Army in 1979. But when Lewis was honorably discharged at Fort Benning, Georgia, in 1986, she had no real direction in mind either.

“I really had no connections and no place to go,” Lewis said.

Battling Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), estranged from family and divorced three times, she was sporadically homeless over a period of 12 years. She also had painful back problems that made some jobs difficult.

“It may have been six months here or two months there,” she said, but she was chronically homeless.

Like so many throughout the history of this nation with a cultural belief in Manifest Destiny, Lewis decided that perhaps a fresh start in the West would give her the direction she sought.

She randomly chose Wyoming. She arrived in Cheyenne in 2011 after scraping together bus fare from Birmingham, Ala., where she was living on the streets.

Lewis was able to get into COMEA House, a Cheyenne homeless shelter, and realized there was an array of services available to her because of her service to the nation.

From there she was connected to Veterans Affairs, was able to get her disability income and connect with assistance to find housing.

“I just got cotton pickin’ tired of rambling and wandering the streets,” Lewis said.

Ending rambling fever

Deciding to quit rambling is essential, but knowing where to turn to for help can be a challenge.

The groups and agencies offering those services have formed the Homeless Veterans Forum in Cheyenne to coordinate efforts from an alphabet soup of programs known chiefly by acronyms.

The Cheyenne VA Medical Center

The Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Cheyenne, Wyoming. (Courtesy of U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs)

In Cheyenne, Lewis found help from a host of agencies that work in partnership.

Lewis is no longer homeless and is now the Chaplain of VFW Post 6 in Cheyenne. She said she now finds direction for her life in a Bible verse from Micah 6:8. “He has shown you, O man, what is good; And what does the Lord require of you But to do justly, To love mercy, And to walk humbly with your God?”

After all her rambling and searching, Lewis decided, “Keep it simple for God and country. That’s the only thing that makes any sense to me.”

The Bible verse is an appropriate theme for the nation as well, she says, because all the programs are seeking justice for veterans arebbased on promises made for their service and sacrifice.

And those who work with homeless veterans hope that Lewis represents a trend.

Counting homeless veterans

There were 83 homeless veterans in Wyoming for the January 2011 “point-in-time” count. The 2012 report is not out yet, and the investigators are gearing up for the 2013 count in January.

Wyoming saw a 12-percent drop in the number of homeless veterans between the 2010 count and the 2011 count.

Vanessa Stapert is the Health Care and Homeless Veterans coordinator for the Cheyenne Veterans Affairs Medical Center. She works to identify and deliver care to homeless vets in Wyoming and northern Colorado. Stapert hopes this drop in the number of homeless veterans is a trend and anxiously awaits the 2012 count.

But she knows that the counts are just a snapshot, unverifiable and only one piece of a bigger picture.

“I think that we probably miss a lot of the couch surfers,” Stapert said, for example. Couch surfers stay with friends and family and move from place to place. Couch surfers rarely show up in a situation where they may be counted as among the homeless though they have no fixed abode.

There is no keeping it simple, either — not when it comes to the problems affecting veterans, the array of services or navigating bureaucracies to find the proper aid.

Nor is it simple identifying veterans in the field.

Richard McCullough conducts outreach for Community Action of Laramie County’s Crossroads Clinic.

He scours the streets of Cheyenne, searching the parks and under the bridges for people living on the streets to connect them with health services.

He said it is difficult to tell who the veterans are.

A few veterans do not want to be found; some folks on the street say they are veterans when they are not. When veterans are identified, though, McCullough said he can line them up quickly with a variety of services.

Number of women veterans on the rise

Eric K. Shinseki

Eric Shinseki, Department of Veterans Affairs secretary, has lead his department in organizing a plan to end veteran homelessness by 2015. (Courtesy of U.S. DVA – click to enlarge)

Lewis also represents another facet of modern veterans. There are more female veterans than ever. As of September 2009, women numbered 1.8 million of the 23 million veterans.

Wyoming women veterans number 4,400 of 53,250.

And women’s health has become a significant portion of VA services.

“There are a lot more women,” Stapert said. There are a lot of military jobs held by women that had been unavailable in the past and women are now exposed to the same risks that men are.

Women are the fastest growing group within the veteran population. While they make up 8 percent of the population, they account for 11.6 percent of those who served in the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Ambitious targets

“No one who has served this nation as a Veteran should ever be living on the street,” Department of Veterans Affairs secretary Eric K. Shinseki said in announcing the goal.

Zero homeless vets may be an impossible goal, Shinseki added. “But unless we set ambitious targets for ourselves, we would not be giving this our very best efforts.”

Veterans Affairs has a strategic plan to end homelessness for veterans by 2015. And ending homelessness among veterans is not the only challenging problem facing those trying to fulfill the promises made to veterans.

Challenging problems

Even with access to health care, male military veterans are in poorer health than men in active military duty, men in the National Guard and Reserves, and civilian men, according to a new study in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

The study concluded that organizations that serve veterans should increase efforts at preventing poor health behaviors as well as directing vets to healthcare services.

Wyoming’s 53,250 veterans are not immune from the problems. An analysis conducted last spring showed that 11 percent of Laramie County’s jail population were veterans, for example.

Additionally, National Guard and Reserve servicemen were found to be the least likely of the groups to have access to healthcare. Wyoming is home to the most deployed National Guard unit in the nation, and the state’s Guard plays a significant role in catastrophes at home as well as making enormous contributions overseas.

Delays in care are also a factor.

Cheyenne Veterans Affairs Medical Center has a list of 1,279 veterans waiting for services, an increase of almost 6 percent over a year and a half earlier. Wyoming vets wait an average of 165 days for a response to claims for service. That is an 8 percent increase in waiting time from a year and a half earlier.

If an appeal is necessary, the vet can expect to wait an average of 1,321 days for a response. That is much more than a year and an increase of more than 24 percent over earlier wait times.

While Wyoming veterans are not waiting as long as some in other parts of the nation, the promise of timely quality care for those who sacrificed so much for the nation is being broken.

“It’s a national tragedy,” said Larry Barttelbort, director of the Wyoming Veterans Commission.

“We think that we owe our veterans the opportunity to return to some sense of normalcy,” he added. Delays in doing that only make the situation worse.

Those serving veterans have found that the more veterans service officers who are in the field, the more veterans they have been able to connect to federal funds for disabilities.

While Wyoming and North Dakota have roughly the same number of veterans, Barttelbort said, North Dakota has received about $20 million more in federal disability aid for its veterans.

That, Barttelbort said, is because of the number of veterans service officers helping vets navigate the complex qualifications. Those qualifications are complex because the VA is attempting to be good stewards of the taxpayers’ money, he added.

No veteran service officer cuts

Maj. Gen. Luke Reiner is the adjutant general for Wyoming and directs the Wyoming Military Department. Reiner has said he will propose no reductions for those employees as state goes through an 8 percent budget cutting process this winter.

The state of Wyoming has provided a number of innovative services and opportunities through the Veterans Commission, the Department of Health and the Department of Workforce Services.

For example, along with federal dollars available for education provided by new legislation, Wyoming offers combat veterans 10 free semesters of education that include graduate school at the University of Wyoming.

Still, the needs that are most visible and difficult to address appear to be those involving mental health.

Larry Barttelbort, director of the Wyoming Veterans Commission

Larry Barttelbort, director of the Wyoming Veterans Commission, notes that North Dakota, a state with roughly the same number of veterans as Wyoming, receives $20 million more in annual federal disability aid for veterans. (Courtesy of WVC)

The signature wound of the latest wars, Barttelbort said, is the traumatic brain injury from improvised explosives.

The impulse center of the brain is affected by traumatic brain injury, he said, and that relates to behavior.

Some of those dealing with those injuries and other problems also use alcohol and drugs to medicate themselves.

A 2007 study by the state legislature suggested that there are sufficient mental-health resources in the Cowboy State to help veterans with problems that include abusing drugs and alcohol, Barttelbort said.

Veterans are reluctant to connect with those programs, however.

“There’s always been a stigma in our society to using mental health resources,” Barttelbort said. With trained warriors that stigma is heightened.

Wyoming’s former Adjutant Gen. Ed Wright, who oversaw the state National Guard during its largest deployments in history, began the practice of embedding mental-health professionals into the military units before they went overseas.

That was very successful, Barttelbort said, but there are still veterans needing services.

“There’s still a stigma,” Barttelbort added, though its power has been diminished.

Veterans in jail

Former District Judge Gary Hartman is a Vietnam veteran and an advisor to Gov. Matt Mead. He and Barttelbort have been part of a team that brought a veterans treatment court to Wyoming. They wanted to see if the mental health issues among veterans were having an impact on Wyoming crime rates and jail populations. So they requested that those being booked into the Laramie County jail in Cheyenne be asked if they are veterans. Of 5,852 people booked into jail between Oct. 15, 2010, and April 30, 2012, 11 percent or 650 people were veterans.

So an experimental veterans treatment court has been established in Laramie County. With 13,379 veterans, Laramie County has more than twice the veterans population of any Wyoming county.

“This isn’t a gift, go-home-free or get-out-of-jail-free card,” Hartman said. “This is not a new concept. The veterans courts are patterned pretty much after the drug courts.”

The court can require intensive supervised treatment as well as any penalties that might be appropriate.

The difference is that a team of professionals, including the judge, work closely to try to give the veteran a fresh start.

It requires a greater commitment of time from the judge and his team than most criminal cases. The concept also calls on other veterans to provide mentoring services.

There have been technical, legal and practical matters for the court to work out and that process will continue, said Hartman. But it is proceeding. In the end, as Lewis’ favorite verse from the bible says, it is about seeking justice for the nation’s veterans.

“And what does the Lord require of you But to do justly.”

— WyoFile is an online, nonprofit news organization. Visit WyoFile at www.wyofile.com.

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