Serving those who served

How to end the crisis of veteran homelessness

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Courtesy of VA.gov

About 50,000 veterans in the U.S. are homeless. Let that sink in.

Then look around. In Boulder County, veterans make up anywhere from 10 to 20 percent of the homeless population. These are men and women who served in Korea and Vietnam, all the way up to young veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Ending veteran homelessness requires a multipronged approach, says Isabel McDevitt, executive director of Boulder’s Bridge House, an organization that helps homeless people in Boulder find work, housing and healthcare.

McDevitt will lead a panel at noon on Friday, Nov. 14, “Ending Veteran Homelessness,” to discuss the unique challenges that homeless veterans face, and how organizations and communities can best work to support struggling veterans.

“I think understanding just the context of homelessness in Boulder County is important but then from there talk about what’s really necessary to be successful around tackling veteran homelessness specifically,” McDevitt says.

McDevitt says the federal government and U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has put in some “unusual” but effective resources in recent years that have contributed to a significant drop of homeless veterans in the U.S. and in Boulder.

“Here in Boulder County, because of these initiatives, we’ve the seen the number of homeless veterans drop from 20 percent to 8 percent [of the homeless population at Bridge House]. It’s pretty significant the impact some of these programs are having,” McDevitt says.

The panel will consist of McDevitt; Mike Apgar, a Veterans Affairs Colorado representative; and Dennis Fee, a U.S. Navy veteran who overcame homelessness by working with Bridge House and finding work.

McDevitt will talk about the homeless veteran problem in Boulder County and some of those initiatives that have worked so far. Apgar will speak about the V.A.’s efforts to provide healthcare for veterans, specifically homeless veterans, and Fee will talk about his experience coming back from war and what lead to his homelessness before he worked with Bridge House to pull himself up.

The group will also touch on broader topics of veteran homelessness, including why veterans seem more prone to homelessness than the general public in the first place.

“We clearly have a national problem around homelessness due to the economy factor and the lack of affordable housing, and people who are homeless have higher rates of mental illness and substance abuse compared to the general population. The rates around post-traumatic stress disorder, family breakup, substance abuse, are definitely very prevalent in the veteran homeless community,” McDevitt says.

The nonprofit organization National Coalition for Homeless Veterans says those coming back from war also face a lack of healthcare access and adequate support networks, which contributes to veteran homelessness, as well as the fact that, surprisingly, “military occupations and training are not always transferable to the civilian workforce, placing some veterans at a disadvantage when competing for employment.”

But McDevitt says the more that people understand why veterans become homeless — and, too, why homelessness occurs in the general population — the more progress is made to alleviate the crisis. Panels like “Ending Veteran Homelessness” are a good start to educating the public about how they can help.

“I think one of the reasons why the community has really gotten behind additional resources to helping homeless veterans … is because people are pretty appalled that those who have served our country are homeless and are not able to access housing and support services they need. I think there is a different perception and different desire to help homeless veterans than [to help] someone who may not have been a veteran,” McDevitt says.

She added that homeless veterans can be helped in Boulder County by volunteering at Bridge House or other homeless facilities in the county, donating supplies, supporting broader health initiatives for veterans and promoting employment opportunities for veterans.

Indeed, some of those initiatives that have helped curb the homeless veteran population include those that reward business owners for hiring veterans. Though it’s a common complaint among those who have served that U.S. employers don’t value their skills, those willing to train vets for job-specific skills can really make an impact.

“We do see a higher rate of veteran participation in our ‘ready to work’ program,” McDevitt says. Panelist Fee was a graduate of the program. “The skill set people may have had by being in the military is sort of leveraged in the employment arena.”

The panel is free to all attendees and free lunch will be served to the first 40 people who arrive. For more information on Bridge House and ending veteran homelessness, visit boulderbridgehouse.org.

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