The Department of Veterans Affairs says it is making progress in reducing the number of homeless veterans in the country. But the critical need was evident at an event Friday in Springfield Massachusetts. WAMC’s Pioneer Valley Bureau Chief Paul Tuthill reports.
Hundreds of veterans looking for help filed into a church social hall for an opportunity to speak with representatives from more than 60 agencies and programs, including health care providers, counseling services, and housing specialists. There were free meals and each could leave with a bag of clothes.
Gumersindo Gomez of the Western Massachusetts Bilingual Veterans Outreach Center has been organizing this annual one-stop approach to veterans services since the Gulf War in 1990. He said the number of homeless veterans now is the highest he’s seen.
The VA estimates there are as many as 3000 homeless veterans in the region. Roger Johnson, the director of the VA Healthcare System for central and western Massachusetts said nationwide, over the last three years, the number of homeless veterans has been reduced by 40 percent.
The VA has hired more housing specialists and has made rental vouchers available for veterans, but the downsizing of the armed forces and the bad economy are major obstacles to reducing homelessness among veterans.
Unemployment rates are high among recently returned veterans. Many struggle with translating the skills they acquired in the military to the demands of the civilian workplace. There are other issues such as high rates of post traumatic stress disorder and drug and alcohol abuse.
Andrew Richmond, who was discharged last December after 4 years in the Marine Corps is trying to find a job. He said he and his wife moved from motel to motel until they found an apartment where they could pay a reduced rent, off the books.
Steve Como, Executive Vice President of Soldier On, an organization that develops housing for veterans says there needs to be a national strategy to address veteran’s homelessness
Soldier On operates a 250 bed shelter for homeless veterans on the VA medical center’s campus in Leeds. It has a veterans housing development in Pittsfield and is working on housing projects in Northampton and Agawam.