Panelists address homelessness, mental health and more at Washington Conference
Photo by Hilary Ott /The American Legion

Panelists address homelessness, mental health and more at Washington Conference

Whether it’s working with other organizations in the community to find help for a homeless veteran, or building a relationship between a veteran with PTSD and a therapy horse, relationships are key.

That ended up as an important takeaway from the panel discussions during the Veterans Employment & Education meeting on Feb. 26 at The American Legion’s annual Washington Conference.

“Connect with your community partners; know who’s in your area. Know who’s good. Know who’s bad. Know who you can depend on. You have to do that to make sure you’re serving those veterans,” said Clifton Lewis, former executive director of U.S. Vets and one of the panelists discussing homeless awareness and prevention among veterans.

“Many of our clients struggle with connecting socially,” said Emma Hertzberg, an EAGALA-certified equine specialist at Lifeline Equine Therapy Services and a panelist discussing mental health and wellness. “Horses can teach us what true connection looks like.”

Homeless awareness and prevention. Panelists discussing homeless awareness and prevention noted the importance of working with other agencies and organizations to face the issue.

“I think there has to be interaction not just between the VA and agencies like HUD or Labor, but with your city council, your board of supervisors, other folks in the community because federal agencies alone can’t deal with the issue,” said moderator Mark Walker, deputy director of Swords to Plowshares.

“When I was doing outreach 20 years ago, it was street outreach. You went out, you found a vet and you brought him in,” Lewis said. “Now it’s changed where you have to connect with the community partners. You have to have strong relationships with each community partner in the community and make sure that if any veteran falls into homelessness at any point in time from any of those agencies that you work with, they will refer him to you. But there’s a catch: you’ve got to respond. You’ve got to follow up. You’ve got to do your job.”

Panelists said it’s important to share details of the services their agencies provide. Maria Temiquel, director of grants and training, Department of Labor Veterans Employment and Training Service, encouraged American Legion posts to bring her agency and others into post meetings.

“So at your post, if you bring together your members and you have folks from the VA, folks from Labor, folks from other organizations, we can do a presentation. We want to share our services with as many eligible posts as possible,” Temiquel said.

Danielle Applegate, chair of the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans as well as a Legion and Auxiliary member at Post 139 in Arlington, Va., encouraged those in attendance to tell their legislators to support the Charge Act. The legislation — supported by The American Legion — would resume increased per-diem rates VA is authorized to pay state veterans homes to house homeless veterans, among other actions.

“I’ll probably be the only person to tell you that COVID was really great for homelessness, and you know why? It unlocked a lot of money,” Applegate said. “In May, they took all that money away.”

Mental health and wellness. The morning’s second panel discussion focused on mental health and wellness but touched on some of the same concerns as the homeless awareness and prevention panel.

In discussing some of the recent research by the RAND Epstein Family Veterans Policy Research Institute, co-director Rajeev Ramchand noted that “it’s pretty well-known that it’s more expensive to house veterans who have become unhoused than it is to prevent them from becoming unhoused.”

“How can we identify veterans who are on the cusp of becoming unhoused? Usually the way that we think about that is, people who are spending 50 percent or more of their household income on housing expenses, those are the ones who are kind of one paycheck away from losing their house. So who are those individuals and how can we intervene more effectively so they don’t lose their houses?” Ramchand added.

Homelessness is one of the stressors that can affect a veteran’s mental health and wellness. Others include finding purpose after service and connecting socially.

“In the military, it’s really easy to have purpose-job-mission-camaraderie-teamwork. When you transition out, everyone has a bit of a different landing,” said Waco Hoover, chair of the Legion’s Be The One program. “We don’t spend enough time talking about purpose and how we find it. Some people may never find purpose or give a crap … about your job. That may not fill your cup, and that’s ok; find it somewhere else.”

Hertzberg noted that equine therapy can provide a model for veterans and others struggling to make connections.

“One of the really amazing things about horses is that these are community-seeking animals. A sense of community is essential to their ability to survive in nature,” Hertzberg said. “When we have veterans and clients interacting with horses, watching horses, we have models who can teach us how to show up authentically and also how to create the kinds of social experiences we want.”

But while there’s no shortage of anecdotes about how trauma during military service can affect veterans, Suzi Landolphi, whole health clinical director for Merging Vets and Players, said there’s plenty of evidence of trauma before military service making a greater impact.

“Among servicemembers and veterans who attempted suicide, approximately 50 percent have thought about committing suicide and 25 percent have attempted it before joining the military,” Landolphi said. “Why didn’t they tell you that when they signed up? Because if they did, you wouldn’t let them in.

“… When you deal with people who have not only had trauma in the military, you’ve got to find out what they brought in. And you have to be absolutely kind and open-hearted to let them tell you,” Landolphi added, suggesting that basic training could include the opportunity for new servicemembers to discuss their pre-military trauma.

Hoover added, “Over two-thirds of servicemembers who go into the military come in with some kind of preexisting trauma,” per a University of Utah study. “It further reinforces why we need to rethink mental health care, and one of the most impactful ways that we can serve veterans is to think about what the military experience is start to finish.”