American Legion national staff and Legionnaires from across the country tour a veterans homeless facility in Milwaukee. Photo by Tom Strattman

Homeless in Milwaukee

State and national representatives of The American Legion toured Vets Place Central, a transitional housing facility for homeless veterans in Milwaukee Aug. 30 during the Legion's 92nd National Convention. Legionnaires also attended a briefing by Robert Cocroft, president and CEO of the Center for Veterans Issues.

Cocroft took the Legion delegation to see a new facility being built for homeless veterans: a 52-unit building named Veterans Manor that will provide permanent housing.

"On any given night, there are about 200 to 250 homeless veterans (in Milwaukee) that we can document," Cocroft said. "So this new facility doesn't meet the entire demand, but it's a step in the right direction.

"Veterans Manor is very important because, as veterans move out of transitional housing, they need some place to live that is affordable and supportive - so they can help their reintegration into the general population," Cocroft said. "It is the way of a grateful nation, thanking the veterans for what they have provided to the entire nation."

The importance of helping homeless veterans get back into the mainstream of society was underscored by Clifton Sorenson, a veterans service officer and chairman of the Wisconsin Legion's homeless veterans task force.

"Places like Vets Place Central put it all together," Sorenson said. "They have a connection to the community, and that is so important in helping homeless veterans get past some of the stumbling blocks that might be in their way. These kind of facilities have a lot of collaborations, cooperations and partnerships - and The American Legion helps to spread the word about their successes."

Vets Place Central has been in business since 1994, and Veterans Manor is scheduled for completion next spring. Not only will it put a solid roof over the heads of homeless veterans, it will also have a fitness center, business center and office space for a VA case manager.

"We'll also have a kitchen on the first floor and offer training courses in the food service trade to the residents," Cocroft said.

Sorenson said The American Legion is working diligently with other organizations nationwide to end homelessness among veterans by 2014, according to a five-year plan set down by VA Secretary Eric Shinseki - "which is a daunting task. But we are working with legislators to make sure the per diems, the grants, the transitional housing money keep coming. By doing that, we can succeed as a nation in making sure we eradicate this unacceptable state of homelessness among our veterans."

Mark Walker, deputy director of the Legion's Economic Division, said the organization's national leadership tries to provide its departments and posts with the necessary information to understand the (homeless) issue and to help fill any gaps that the private sector and federal government may not be covering.

Stakeholders such as Vets Place Central and the Center for Veterans Issues, Walker said, are connecting the dots that help homeless veterans get health care, housing and jobs.

"At the end of the day, a homeless veteran needs employment," Walker explained. "You have to remember that these homeless veterans - at one time in their life - were very productive and successful people in the United States military. And I think we're obligated to give them the second change they need in order to get back on track."