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Richard Pond wears lapels full of service pins, exhibiting his dedication to The American Legion. His Legion name tag identifies him as the Boy Scout chairman for the Department of New Hampshire. In a navy blue suit punctuated by a splendidly colorful "Save the Children" necktie, Richard seems like a most unlikely candidate to be identified as a homeless veteran.
Yet, not all that long ago, Pond faced that prospect. "We were $8,000 behind in house payments," he confesses candidly, "with more bills piling up. There was no way out, and we lost our home. It was only because my mother-in-law took us in that we didn't end up on the street."
Richard Pond and his wife are recovering now, and prospects are good for a secure future. But Army vet Richard Emden, without any family support, has not been so lucky. "I've been homeless for four years now," he says. "I got a nice job a little while ago, going from $10 to $21 an hour, but then I lost it."
Inspired by their experiences, Pond and Emden work in their own ways on behalf of homeless veterans. Emden volunteers in shelters and carries copies of "Street Sense," a bi-weekly newspaper published in Washington, D.C., to help raise public awareness about the homeless and poverty-stricken.
For his part, Pond is active in a group called "Friends of Veterans" or FOV, based in White River Junction, Vt. The group is a member of the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans, which helps veterans in need with assistance in resolving the root causes of homelessness: health issues, economic hardship and lack of affordable housing.
Pond and Emden met at The American Legion's Homeless Veterans' Provider Workshop last Friday in Washington. The workshop featured five speakers: Mary O'Malley, the VA's Homeless Special Populations Manager; Cynthia High, Special Needs Assistance Specialist at the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD); Gordon Burke, Department of Labor; Verna Jones, a Legion staffer here who spoke on behalf of Women Veterans Support Services, Inc.; and retired U.S. Army National Guard Lt. Col. Aaron Rodgers.
O'Malley detailed the varied causes of homelessness and the difficulty of eliminating it. "Homelessness is not solely a result of the lack of available housing or financial resources but frequently a consequence of multiple psycho-social factors, including unstable family support, job loss, inadequate job skills, health problems, substance abuse disorders or other mental-health concerns," she said.
In broad terms, O'Malley outlined VA's five-year plan to assist every homeless veteran willing to accept help in obtaining safe housing, needed medical treatment, employment and earned veteran benefits.
High then spoke about HUD's work to locate and acquire transitional housing units for groups of homeless vets. She pointed to special challenges faced by the increasing number of women veterans who are homeless.
"Many of them do not wish to go to a traditional shelter, both because of fear of harm to themselves, and because they do not wish the custody of their children to be endangered," High said.
The plight of homeless women veterans was echoed later in the day by Burke as well as Jones, who told her own story of homelessness some years ago as the result of domestic violence.
All workshop speakers emphasized prevention as the most essential factor in ending homelessness among veterans. All agreed that education and vocational training, as well as effective health care, can help make the goal of ending veteran homelessness attainable.
Rodgers, who heads a Junior ROTC program at a Maryland high school, introduced one more preventive measure to the discussion: instilling traditional values in youth. Rodgers believes that teaching youth about military values, whether they intend to pursue a military career or not, will help steer them into healthy lifestyles and away from behavior patterns that often contribute to homelessness.
The sentiment of the session was encapsulated in a closing statement by workshop organizer Mark Walker of The American Legion's Economic Division: "These men and women led fulfilling, valuable and productive lives in the service. They need and deserve the same in civilian life."