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Volunteers of America helping to end veteran homelessness

W. Kenneth Medley II • Feb 23, 2019 at 11:54 PM

On any given night in the U.S., nearly 40,000 veterans, some with families, close their eyes to sleep in the streets, the gutters and dark corners of American cities, hungry and afraid for the future.

Johnson City is no exception to homeless veterans. According to the U.S. department of Housing and Urban Development’s 2018 Annual Housing Assessment Report, 37,878 veterans nationwide suffer point-in-time homelessness; estimates place 742 homeless veterans in Tennessee.

Volunteers of America Mid-States is one organization combating this plight in eight counties of Northeast Tennessee.

“Volunteers of America Mid-States has provided supportive services to veteran families in the Johnson City area since October 2016,” said Mysty Underwood, program manager. “Prior to that our Knoxville, Tennessee, office covered this part of Tennessee, as well, and that began in 2013.”

According to updated statistics provided by the VOA Mid-States office in Johnson City, they have served 119 veterans and their families. The office in Johnson City was established to provide more services. Underwood describes the SSVF program as an intensive case-management program designed to provide self-sufficiency to struggling veterans and their families.

“In this office, that is the Support Services for Veteran Families office,” Underwood said, “we provide case management services and housing for veterans. We also have a (Homeless Veteran Re-integration Program), and they provide employment services to veterans.”

The supportive services for veterans’ families program is income-based, according to Kevin Rincon, outreach coordinator. Individuals seeking benefits cannot make over 50 percent of the area median income. This figure is different within the eight counties covered by VOA Mid-States. The number of dependents an individual has is taken into account as well.

The VOA Mid-States serves Carter, Greene, Hancock, Hawkins, Johnson, Sullivan, Unicoi and Washington counties. Any veteran that served one-day active-duty and received a discharge other than dishonorable can qualify for services.

The veteran, a member of a family in which the head of household is a veteran, or where the spouse of the head of household is a veteran can apply for the assistance.

Rincon says a screening process for people seeking benefits to determine eligibility is administered. The veteran answers a questionnaire delivered by the intake specialist. Once the person is determined to be eligible for the program, they will be provided with a list of required documents to be brought back.

The next step is the intake process. The person seeking benefits will meet with an intake coordinator and case manager to continue. At this point the benefits each veteran or veteran family receives is determined on a case-by-case basis.

“It depends on how much income the veteran has,” Rincon said. “Is the person needing to work or willing to work? If they are, we can hook them up with the HVRP program, which is upstairs. At the same time as trying to get the individual housing, we’re also attempting to help them out with employment. The ultimate goal is self-sustainability.”

The VOA can help with rental and utility assistance for eligible veterans. This can be in the form of providing monetary means to pay deposits for a home or utilities in some cases. The program can provide some basic needs like cleaning supplies, pots and pans, and even twin size beds for everybody in the family. It is not, however, a bill-paying service, says Underwood.

“Our funding comes directly from the Department of Veteran Affairs,” said Underwood, “our HVRP funding comes from the Department of Labor. We are working diligently to end veteran homelessness, and not just end it, but prevent it before it happens.

“If any veteran is in need of services all they have to do is call us. We have a dedicated intake line, or they can come here to the office and apply for services.”

Providing these services does not come without its challenges. According the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans, there is a myriad of factors a veteran can becomes homeless. The factors can include substance abuse, post-traumatic stress disorder from combat service and depression. Often it is a combination of factors.

A challenge locally is property owners’ and managers’ willingness to work with the VOA office.

“The VOA is asking for landlords willing to work with them to reach out to them,” Underwood said in an interview. “It is hard finding landowners willing to take a second-chance on a person that may not look good on paper. Some landowners think that the deal is too good to be true.”

The work is important to all in the office, located at 112 Myrtle St., Suite 300, Johnson City. Krysten Kelch, case manager, points out that many of the staff are veterans themselves. She is a military spouse whose husband is currently deployed.

“I feel honored to be able to serve our veterans,” Kelch said. “The best part is seeing them (the veteran) on their worse day and then you really help them get into a place, find a job and everything has changed for them.”

This sentiment was one easily agreed upon. Case Manager Frank Dunn, who is also a veteran, and maybe the office comedy relief, shared his thoughts.

“Seeing them before,” said Dunn, “and how they feel like they are coming in here broken and nobody is listening. Then catching them in the middle where you see that they are excited about getting a place, and they are going out looking on their own, trying to get a job, even with everything they have been through.

“Then housing them and being on their own again and not needing help, that is the best part.”

If you are a veteran that is homeless or at-risk of becoming homeless, call the VOA Mid-States Johnson City intake line at 423-461-0047.

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