Randall Smith spent years on the street as a homeless veteran. When he finally got a place to live, “I purposely rented a three-bedroom home,” he said.
Smith wanted to be able to help other veterans make that same transition to a stable life.
“If they need three or four days while they wait for their own housing to open up, they can come to my home,” Smith told U.S. Sen. Patty Murray.
o Veterans looking for information on the Homeward Bound program can call Emily Stoutsenberger or Pam Brokaw at 360-696-8417.
That was one of the housing-related issues the Washington Democratic senator heard Thursday morning in Vancouver. Murray talked with five veterans who have overcome homelessness or unemployment. She also heard from Vancouver and Longview housing officials about the barriers many veterans face when they return to civilian life.
“One of the biggest needs is housing,” Murray said as she kicked off the roundtable discussion. Murray is hoping to expand assistance to former military personnel through a bill called The Homeless Women Veterans and Homeless Veterans With Children Act.
“Women are the fastest-growing population of veterans, and Veterans Affairs is not ready with programs for them — or for men with children,” Murray said. “A lot of Vietnam vets were not married, with kids. Things are different in our current conflicts.”
In July, Murray announced a $173,280 grant to Partners in Careers. The nonprofit organization is using the money for its “Homeward Bound” veterans assistance program.
During Thursday’s discussion at the Partners in Careers office, Murray listened as five veterans described their challenges.
Jenney Pauer, a former Army linguist, said she hadn’t pursued benefits because she didn’t really identify herself as a veteran.
“I was hesitant because I was not a combat veteran and didn’t realize I was eligible for a lot of services,” Pauer said. “I know my job was critical, but the military is a male-dominated environment, and women are not considered real soldiers.”
Pauer was able to find help at the Partners in Careers office, where Emily Stoutsenberger coordinates the Veteran Women Program.
“That saved my bacon and tided me over until the school year,” said Pauer, who will be a teacher at Fort Vancouver High School this year.
“I had no idea there was any support,” said veteran Smith, who dealt with undiagnosed traumatic stress following his service in Vietnam. “When you’re homeless, people look at you terribly: ‘He’s an alcoholic. He’s a drug abuser. He doesn’t play well with others.’”
And, Smith said, “I moved so often the VA couldn’t find me.”
“So what finally clicked?” Murray wanted to know.
Somebody told Smith about a Veterans of Foreign Wars office, and “I walked into the VFW,” the Longview resident said.
“Veterans are reluctant to say, ‘I deserve this,’” said Vancouver’s Carlos Santini, who served in Iraq.
“When someone says, ‘Thanks,’ you say, ‘It’s my job. It’s what I’m supposed to be doing.’”
Air Force vet Perry Lawson said his longest stretch of homelessness was six years. Lawson said he fit the description of the “working homeless.”
“I had no trouble getting a job. The problem was maintaining a job,” the Vancouver veteran said.
Again, Murray wanted to know how he turned things around. Lawson was in a shelter in Longview, he said and, “A disabled veterans outreach van showed up. That was my first contact with the VA.”
One barrier is the way some grant funding defines homelessness, said Pam Brokaw, executive director of Partners in Careers. People have to be on the street or living in a car to qualify, Brokaw said.
And that barred Air Force veteran Cyndee Machado from services.
“I was a ‘couch-jumping’ kind of homeless,” said Machado, now a Woodland resident.
Housing vouchers provided by the VA and federal housing programs do help veterans find places to live. But obstacles remain, said Roy Johnson, executive director of the Vancouver Housing Authority.
Landlords want to check the backgrounds of prospective renters, he said. Deposits are required. And just submitting an application form can cost $35.
Even when veterans were able to qualify for vouchers, “We were losing people in the transition process,” said Chris Pegg, executive director of the Longview Housing Authority.
“We’ve leased two houses in the community, and we can start working with veterans from Day One, before they get the voucher,” Pegg said.