SOME PLACE LIKE HOME: Connecting homeless veterans with services

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The inside of the Colorado Army National Guard Armory bustled with people manning tables for VA benefits, dental exams and flu shots. One corner of the room offered haircuts. Down the hall, men and women lined up to collect cold-weather clothing and heavy-duty boots in green canvas bags.

But for 51-year-old Michael George, who was volunteering at the 23rd Homeless Veterans Stand Down hosted by the Department of Veterans Affairs on Nov. 7, getting vets into housing was at the forefront of his mind.

“When you don’t have a home, you’re dangling,” he said. “Nobody can contact you, you can’t gather nothing. You can’t keep nothing. You’re kind of hopeless.”

George, an Aurora veteran, was homeless for nearly 20 years and struggled with alcoholism before an outreach worker helped him find transitional housing with the VA in 2007. He now has his own apartment and works as a peer counselor at the Aurora Veterans Home.

“We get so displaced,” he said. “I don’t think a lot of people get it. If you’re disconnected, you can’t get a job, have a phone. You can’t do any of the things it takes in order to get employment and take care of yourself.”

Michael said post-traumatic stress disorder is to blame for the high rate of homelessness among veterans, which he also struggled with before receiving treatment.

Michelle Lapidow, deputy chief of VA homeless services, manned a table helping men and women apply for the VA’s homeless housing voucher program, known as HUD-VASH, The trouble Lapidow says is people having the necessary documentation such as a driver’s license to fill out the application at stand down events.

She wrote in an email that five veterans were accepted to HUD-VASH after Thursday’s stand down out of the hundreds who attended. “Four of these completed their applications the same day, and those applications were turned into the Denver Housing Authority the next day. We continue to work with the remaining veteran to gather needed documents,” she stated.

VA officials estimate there are 1,300 homeless veterans on any given night in Colorado. They estimate that 640 of those veterans live in the Denver metro area, and that 10 percent are women while the rest are men.

The numbers can get tricky when it comes to Aurora veterans.

“It’s difficult,” said Dan Warvi, spokesman for the Denver VA Medical Center. “Because Denver has the majority of homeless services, a lot of the homeless will congregate in Denver for services, but then they’ll return to communities like Aurora and Commerce City. A good percentage of the veterans here are from Aurora.”

A 2012 point-in-time survey of 12,605 homeless people in the metro area found 12.9 percent identified themselves as veterans. The survey, which was conducted by the Metro Denver Homeless Initiative, also found that one-in-five veterans suffered from a mental illness or a substance abuse problem, and that nearly a third of them were not collecting any government benefits.

This year, the stand down served 458 homeless veterans, which is 142 fewer than last year.

“It looks like we’re trending down, which is a good sign,” said Warvi. “The VA is committed to ending veteran homelessness by 2015. In the metro area, we know we’re down about 17 percent over the last two years.”