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Michael J. Brien: A venting on veteran homelessness in New Hampshire

August 12. 2013 7:03PM

Homelessness is not pretty. Homelessness and struggle among veterans who have served this country since Korea is possibly the worst form of turning our back on our humanity.

In September 2011, I met Ron, a Korean War vet staying at New Horizons Shelter in Manchester, who unfortunately had begun self-medicating with alcohol since the war. He would rather chew me up and spit me out than accept help. But after working with him for a couple of months and gaining his trust, he let me and another long-time case manager at New Horizons get him into a congregate living apartment through the Manchester Housing and Redevelopment Authority. It took several weeks more before he would accept that a one-bedroom apartment with a twin-sized bed, a small kitchen table, two kitchen chairs, a coffee table, recliner and TV donated by St. Vincent de Paul was really his to come home to every night.

Throughout 2012, I witnessed our backs remain turned on Vietnam vets, now in their sixties. I can easily name a dozen I have helped into housing who continue to struggle with alcohol and mental health issues, desperately trying to adapt skills that are not asked for any longer to the needs of a computerized retail/service economy, and who slowly but surely fell into chronic homelessness, yet slowly but surely are pulling themselves out — Ron, Walter, Peter, Steven, Fidel, Eugene, Ray, Dwayne, James, Norman, Laurent, and Willie. No, it is not pretty.

The Veterans Administration has pumped money and caring staff into the issue of veteran homelessness. Organizations such as Veterans Inc., The Way Home, New Horizons for NH, The Bridge House, Harbor Homes, Friends of Veterans, Helping Heroes Home, VetLink, and on and on have cooperatively assisted with supports such as security deposits, car repair, shelter, food, connecting vets to their medical benefits, pensions — one veteran at a time.

You have to meet a homeless veteran where they are — don't expect them to come groveling for assistance. But if you are real and you can get them to trust you, if you can listen, if you can at least say, "I'll try," they'll believe in you the way we believed in them when we asked them to sacrifice their lives for their country.

But they won't disappear.

In just the program I am paid through, Supportive Services for Veterans Families (SSVF), Congress and the VA established funding that they hoped would end homelessness among veterans by 2015. A noble and honorable goal, but I don't think so. Our current and recently-ended conflicts in Iraq and soon, Afghanistan, will be churning out homeless veteran numbers that previously took those who fought in Vietnam a half-generation to bring to light.

In June of this year, I met Linda — a female Afghanistan-era vet, with four kids, who had just been thrown out of her relationship with a fellow vet and a home the couple had been sharing with his parents. She was living temporarily with her four kids in a large living room turned bedroom in a Dover shelter. Where does a woman turn who is dealing with PTSD, has a family that she needs to care for, a child with special needs, a mini-van that needs $3,000 in repairs, and hasn't yet received any social service assistance? Our fragile social service system is inadequate at best to deal with long-term solutions, and our society today demands quick, fiscally responsible fixes.

Pull yourself up by your own bootstraps. Tough to do in worn-out combat boots.

Thankfully for Linda's family, many hands pitched in to help. Some of them are continuing to help this woman put her life back together — they include the woman's own two hands and brute determination, her mother's caring and financial help, My Friend's Place, the Exeter and Manchester school systems, The Way Home, Manchester Housing and Redevelopment Authority, and a bunch of other organizations that just splash out in acronyms will astound you — SSVF, HVRP, SNAP, TANF, VA, VASH, VFWs. All for one mom-veteran and her kids.

But that is veteran homelessness. Not pretty. A struggle. Needing an army of many as we needed an army of many to fight the battles they fought.

It isn't easy, and we can't simply walk away.

There, I've said it.

Michael J. Brien is SSVF case manager at New Horizons for NH Inc. in Manchester and Veterans Inc.

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