Helping homeless Veterans

“Social work is a mix between being a minister and a cop,” Bob Rogers told American Legion chaplains Sept. 26. “Because your work calls for a lot of compassion, but it also calls for police intervention. If you have a local program for homeless veterans, I think chaplaincy and social workers at VA should be a hand-in-hand operation.”

Rogers, who works for the Richard L. Roudebush VA Medical Center in Indianapolis, was a featured speaker at the Legion’s annual Chaplains Conference, held this year at the Sheraton City Centre Hotel downtown.

Rogers said providing health care for homeless veterans is a relatively new outreach program that VA started in the early 1990s. Vietnam veterans lobbied VA to do something for their comrades-in-arms.

“Without the great amount of concern shown by our Vietnam veterans, a health-care program for homeless veterans wouldn’t have happened,” Rogers said. “They knew their buddies had problems, saw them living in the streets and out in the woods.”

In addition to helping homeless veterans’ health concerns, VA joined the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to develop a program that put homeless veterans into decent apartments and houses. In 1993, the two agencies created the housing program known as HUD-VASH (Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing). Homeless veterans receive vouchers through Section 8 – a HUD provision that allows people with little or no income to live in privately owned rental housing. VA continues to provide health care to veterans in their new residences.

“This program also allows us to follow up with the veterans,” Rogers said. “They come in with a myriad of issues: alcohol, drugs, PTSD, mental-health issues, loss of a child, loss of their faith.”

According to Rogers, more veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan are becoming homeless. “We’re also seeing more families without homes, and the economic crisis is contributing to this problem. Some younger veterans are living out of their vehicles,” he said.

But homelessness has no age limit among veterans. At Roudebush, homeless veterans receiving health care range from 20- and 30-somethings to a 90-year-old who served in the Merchant Marines.

VA also counsels many homeless veterans in its national initiative on suicide prevention. “We ask them, ‘Do you feel like you might hurt yourself today?’” Rogers said. “One veteran, tired of hearing that question, shot back: “You ask me that question one more time, and I’m gonna jump!” Rogers promised not to ask again. But he also got that veteran to pledge that he would say something if he ever felt suicidal.

“Our job as chaplains and social workers is to help people turn new chapters in their lives,” Rogers said. “If you’ve got the spiritual side covered, then you know your life is important. If you can bring back ‘lost sheep’ to their families, that’s important work.”

President Obama and VA Secretary Eric Shinseki aren’t satisfied with just reducing the homeless veteran problem. “They want to zero it out,” Rogers said. “And they want help from The American Legion and other veterans groups to get it done.”

In addition to the tremendous number of volunteer hours that Legionnaires log at VA centers across the country, Rogers said Legion groups can also do a great deal of good by donating to General Post Funds at VA facilities.

“One of the guys we’ve helped hit the lottery and won $15,000,” Rogers said. “Of course, he helped out his daughter and he helped himself. But he also gave $500 to the post fund of the VA center that had helped him.”

The VA Web site has contact information for its state homeless veteran program coordinators.