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'You can't live a healthy life if you're living on the streets'
Program helps homeless veterans find fresh starts, get on their feet
Richmond Times-Dispatch - 1/1/2018
Three years ago, Herb Gary spent the bulk of his time wandering.
The 64-year-old Army veteran lived on the streets of Richmond for nearly two years. Getting by meant a lot of walking from one shelter to another, looking for a meal or a place to sleep as he battled major depression.
He had stopped taking his medication and said he was "lost" in his illness. He also lost his sense of self-awareness and, while he says he never lost his faith, he did forget it while he was homeless and living in a car.
Now, he's on his medication again, and he says he feels whole.
He got off the streets and managed to buy a home in Midlothian in June, thanks in large part to counseling and financial assistance he received through the McGuire Veterans Affairs Medical Center.
And with 2018 laid out freshly before him, he is looking forward to marrying his fiancee this year and enjoying the sense of peace that has wrapped itself around his life.
"Sometimes it's scary, but I keep doing the things that got me here, keep believing, keep having faith," he said. "It's scary because you've been certain places you never want to go back to. But I know I've come this far, and I know God wouldn't let me down."
Gary served in the Army for more than 17 years, spending the bulk of his time safeguarding hazardous material. He is one of hundreds of veterans able to turn their lives around through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development-Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing program, or HUD-VASH.
The program combines case management and clinical services for veterans, along with a housing voucher for rental assistance to not only get them a home but also to pinpoint and address whatever the root cause of their homelessness was.
Jimmie Fedrick, a social worker with the program at McGuire, said there are currently about 345 veterans participating. The medical center has more than $1.2 million budgeted toward the program, a figure that includes salaries for 16 employees.
"Once a veteran is housed, they work with social workers, peer support specialists, the VA as a whole, case management services to make sure they're successful in their independent living," Fedrick said.
Many veterans who find themselves in situations of homelessness are, like Gary, battling mental health issues, Fedrick explained. Others have substance abuse issues, and many typically have no to very low incomes. According to the National Center on Homelessness among Veterans, men who served are twice as likely and women who served are three times as likely as their civilian counterparts to become homeless.
The veterans can be in the program for however long it takes to make sure their lives are stable and that they're no longer at risk of becoming homeless.
"Our individuals stay in our program until they have ... graduated, which means they have had permanent, suitable income or employment, they've identified and reached their goals, and they've overcome whatever elements or situations caused them to fall into a homeless state," Fedrick said.
"These individuals, they have paid a price; they have participated in something greater than themselves," he said. "One of our mottos is, 'It's our turn to serve these veterans.'"
In late 2015, Gov. Terry McAuliffe announced that Virginia had functionally ended veteran homelessness in the state. The keyword was "functionally." That does not mean no veteran will ever experience homelessness, rather that resources are in place to ensure any such experience is brief.
"As long as homelessness is an issue in our society in general, veterans will experience those same challenges," said Jeff Doyle, the homeless coordinator for the VA Mid-Atlantic Health Care Network, which includes Virginia. "As long as we keep a focus, and sustain our programs, that's how we can continue to move forward. ... That's why we can look at it and say that Virginia continues to have ended veteran homelessness."
Since HUD-VASH began in 2008, additional vouchers have been added so more veterans can sign up for it as more are identified.
"We're tasked with providing the best health care possible for the veterans of the United States and, in my opinion, housing is health care," Doyle said. "You can't live a healthy life if you're living on the streets."
For Gary, getting into the program in August 2015, receiving a voucher soon after and then moving into a home in Richmond'sSouth Side meant taking control of his depression.
"I was still going through my mental health program, becoming more and more strong in my mental capacity and my self-awareness, and things just started moving in the right direction for me," he said.
He had his voucher for close to two years when he knew he was ready to move on. The program had given him the opportunity to re-establish his finances, making it possible for him to buy a house, and he also knew he wanted to release his voucher and open a spot for another veteran who could take advantage of it.
"I knew there was more for me to be accomplished," he said.
The 1,500-square-foot house he owns in Midlothian was one of the first he saw after he began looking. He had looked around at some others, but said the first house kept coming back to him.
He has made a complete recovery since the days when he wandered the streets of Richmond trying to get by and struggled with his mental health. He is close with his family and welcomed his third grandchild into the world in mid-December. He even does some work as a peer for other veterans going through similar experiences.
"What I tell a lot of people that I work with is to trust the process," he said. "I know I run into a lot of vets who get a little frustrated with the process, because sometimes it can be slow and seem that it's not working. But there's certain steps that the process has to go through; you just have to trust it and keep the faith."
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