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Summit addresses homeless vet dilemma

By Staff | Oct 31, 2014

One of the biggest reasons there are so many homeless veterans in Southwest Florida is because very few realize they can get help from the Veterans Administration.

That is what experts said Monday as the Bay Pines VA Healthcare System (VAHCS) hosted a Homeless Veterans Summit at the Dr. Carrie Robinson Center in Fort Myers.

The event brought together stakeholders and community partners with the hopes of developing a plan to address the needs of veterans who are homeless or at-risk for homelessness residing throughout the communities served by the Bay Pines VAHCS in Southwest Florida.

Officials and community experts discussed new and ongoing initiatives and updates on homeless program services and VA benefits. Also presented were videos with those who were homeless or incarcerated who benefitted from the services they didn’t know they were eligible for.

Jennifer Sprague, Homeless Program coordinator for Bay Pines, said the event was held to discuss the different issues surrounding homelessness, to educate people on VA programs and help bring awareness and collaboration.

“We’re trying to learn the services we have here we can use to reach our partners. We have a few VA funded programs in this area,” Sprague said. “The theme for today is hope for the homeless. We’re looking at what services we have and what we need to help bridge the gap to end homelessness.”

Roger Casey, director of Education and Dissemination from the National Center on Homelessness Among Veterans, was the keynote speaker at the event.

He, along with others, discussed the Housing First program, which is being used to put a roof over the heads of veterans who are chronically homeless, before providing the services they need around that, whether that be from drugs, crime, mental disorder or long-term unemployment.

Also presenting were James Garnett, Veterans Justice Outreach Coordinator, who discussed the role of his position and veteran courts that help keep vets from being jailed or going back to prison.

Garnett said incarceration is the highest risk factor for homelessness. While about 9.4 percent of those in prison are veterans, 82 percent of them are eligible for benefits. More than 300,000 are imprisoned because of post traumatic stress disorder, with another 320,000 having traumatic brain injury.

Christopher Kelly discussed the Housing First program, and John Hinton, a Homeless Veterans Outreach Coordinator, discussed veteran benefits.

There was also a panel discussion with two certified peer specialists in VA homeless programs.

Hinton said he believes there’s a sea of change because there is more appreciation for veterans now than when they came home from Vietnam, and that many vets believe there wasn’t an appreciation for them before.

“There’s a change in culture, an appreciation of vets where 40 or 50 years ago there wasn’t. We are going back to get those who were disenfranchised back into the system where they thought they weren’t part of it,” Hinton said. “That’s what outreach is. We go to the woods, shelters, streets, wherever they may be and try to connect them if it’s possible.”

Kevin Amadhi, executive director of operations at Gulf Coast Village in Cape Coral, part of Volunteers for America, which services more than 5,500 people statewide, hopes they can bring their sister organization into Southwest Florida.

“If we can be a conduit and help bring in housing for homeless veterans, that’s our goal. We’re here to learn, meet some people and see if there’s an opportunity to advance our services,” Amadhi said, adding that homelessness for veterans is a growing problem here, since there isn’t enough housing for them.

Ray Tuller of Volunteers of America said during any given night, roughly 45 percent of the people you see are homeless vets. While the numbers are way down from five years ago, there are still too many living without a roof over their heads.

“As of 2012, there were 79,000 people on the street in Florida. Half are vets. That’s too many,” Tuller said. “They’ve made progress on the veteran said, but homeless populations are still way too high.”

The Bay Pines VAHCS is one of the nation’s leading VA healthcare systems, employing more than 3,800 medical professionals and support staff.

The organization is the fourth busiest VA healthcare system in the country in terms of patients served. It operates nine facilities, including an outpatient clinic in Cape Coral at the intersesction of Diplomat Parkway and Corbett Road.