From Hopeless and Homeless to Hopeful and HomeBound

The term “Homeless Veteran” should be an oxymoron. No Veteran of our armed services should return to a civilian life that doesn’t include a permanent home and the appropriate supports needed to successfully reintegrate back into society, but some do. According to the 2014 Annual Homeless Assessment Report (AHAR) to Congress, prepared by HUD, there were 49,933 homeless Veterans on any single night in the United States. This startling statistic is part of what prompted the Veterans Administration (VA), five years ago, to make a commitment to end Veteran Homelessness in 2015, which includes addressing not only the Veterans’ concrete housing needs, but also their behavioral and physical health needs that will enable them to stay in their own homes.

At ICL, “Homecoming” is a word that has special meaning to veterans returning to family and friends after having been away for long periods of time. A veteran’s return home does not end just because he or she is now back on American soil. Indeed, for many, the long journey “home” only begins at that point. Reestablishing emotional connections and a personal role with family and community after significant time away from home may require ongoing support and assistance. ICL offers services to veterans of all eras to help on the journey home at the ICL Borden Avenue Veterans Residence (BAVR), funded by the New York City Department of Homeless Services (DHS). ICL BAVR is a short-term transitional housing program for homeless veterans located in Long Island City, NY. The BAVR accommodates 243 male and female veterans. Veterans at the BAVR receive case management services that include assistance accessing supportive housing and other appropriate permanent housing placement assistance. BAVR also has on-site medical and psychiatric services. ICL works closely with DHS and the US Department of Veterans Affairs to provide coordinated and comprehensive services to homeless veterans residing at BAVR to smooth and ensure their transition to independence.

For 243 male and female homeless Veterans in living at the BAVR, this temporary transitional residence is where they have a safe place to call home while working on permanent housing and where they can simultaneously access other support services to reconnect with family and other relationships. Few of our Vets are newly discharged. Many have struggled on their own for years before arriving at ICL Borden Avenue. The following is a story of one such Veteran, Mr. Michael Rodriguez.

Mr. Rodriguez is typical of the struggles and resilience we see on a continual basis in the vets at BAVR. He entered BAVR in August of 2014. He served in the Navy and was honorably discharged; however, his transition back to civilian life was difficult. He had trouble reconnecting to family and finding a role for himself. Although he was back on American soil, he didn’t feel like he was truly home. Due to his income and eligibility challenges for housing options, he felt as if his situation was hopeless. He struggled with domestic and separation challenges from his spouse, medical issues, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), low self-esteem, depression, and a history of suicide attempts and substance abuse issues. His symptoms increased and his personal relationships deteriorated. He was unable to find work. Eventually, Mr. Rodriguez became homeless, which only added to his suffering. Since 1987, he experienced several periods of homelessness with little sense of connection to his family, and was overwhelmed by his symptoms and substance abuse.

PTSD is an anxiety disorder that can develop after exposure to a terrifying event or ordeal in which grave physical harm occurred or was threatened. Traumatic events that may trigger PTSD include violent personal assaults, natural or human-caused disasters, accidents, or military combat. People with PTSD have persistent frightening thoughts and memories of their ordeal and feel emotionally numb, especially with people they were once close to. Its effects can affect a veteran’s psycho-social and socioeconomic aspects of life.

Early detection of PTSD, combined with well planned, researched and developed screenings, can assist in providing adequate services to Veterans. According to Jakupcak (2007), “Veterans who screened positive for PTSD reported significantly greater anger and hostility than those in the subthreshold-PTSD and non-PTSD groups. These findings suggest that providers should screen for anger and aggression among Iraq and Afghanistan War veterans who exhibit symptoms of PTSD and incorporate relevant anger treatments into early intervention strategies. Williamson (2009) explains that, “we have yet to see the full extent of troops’ psychological and neurological injuries.” Service members are still deploying on long and repeated combat tours, which increase the risk of blast injuries and combat stress. Rates of marital stress, substance abuse, and suicide are all increasing. Untreated psychological injuries are also a risk factor for homelessness; almost 2,000 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans have already been seen in the Department of Veterans Affairs’ homeless outreach program.

When he arrived at the ICL Borden Avenue Veterans Residence, Mr. Rodriguez had significant trust issues. He consistently voiced the wish for someone to believe in him. Our staff is trained inTrauma Informed Care – a philosophical approach that assumes all our clients are “Wounded Warriors” who have experienced traumatic, painful events or PTSD. Trauma Informed Care is sensitive to an individual’s past experiences and how they may impact current choices and behaviors. Trauma-informed care asks not, “What is wrong with you?” but rather, “What happened to you?” Helping people view their behavior and symptoms as reasonable reactions to bad situations takes the blame away. It starts them on the path to seeing themselves as survivors who found the strength to get through bad times instead of thinking (or being told) that they are to blame for their illness.

Being approached as a person to be respected for what he has survived provided the breakthrough Mr. Rodriguez needed to open up and access help. Mr. Rodriguez felt heard and empathized with, instead of blamed and judged. As he began to feel cared for and valued, Mr. Rodriguez was able to access the services available to him. Mr. Rodriguez was able to see his symptoms as a reaction to what had happened to him, instead of thinking he was a bad person for having these problems. As he felt better about himself, he could envision a future that included a permanent home. After the shame and guilt were removed, Mr. Rodriguez has been able to achieve sobriety and accept treatment for his mental and physical health.

Mr. Rodriguez likes to share his story to give others hope. He remembers when he felt like no one believed in him or cared about him. He wants others to know that they can reach out for help and find caring, supportive staff who will listen to them. Mr. Rodriguez is currently getting treatment for his behavioral and physical health issues and on the path to obtaining permanent housing. It has been a long and difficult road, since he first became homeless in 1987. The stories of Mr. Rodriguez and others like him have and must change the way we address Veterans’ issues. We hope that by providing Rapid Re-Housing and immediate access to social services, the Veterans coming home from Afghanistan will get the help they need to readjust to life at home, at the first sign of difficulty, ending the need for the term “homeless veteran.”

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