Summit seeks to help homeless veterans

VA center wants to line up holistic services

jgaines@macon.comMarch 26, 2013 

To a roomful of local service providers, Amy Bailey was touted as a “veterans success story” Tuesday.

The Ellaville native said she served as a lead medical specialist in the Georgia Army National Guard’s 48th Infantry Brigade Combat Team when that unit was mobilized for the first Gulf War. The team never deployed for combat, but Bailey said she saw plenty of accidents and injuries during nine months of training in the California desert.

“Words can’t even express how terrifying and depressing it was out there,” she said. “Though we were still in the states, it felt like another world.”

Bailey told her story to a packed conference room at Volunteer Macon on Holt Avenue. That’s where Keiya Myles, HUD/VASH program coordinator at the Carl Vinson VA Medical Center, led a Homeless Veterans Summit for local government officials, nonprofit social service agencies, area health care providers, housing suppliers, job training groups and educators. The summit was part of a nationwide push to eliminate homelessness among veterans by January 2015, Myles said.

Bailey said her military experience left her with depression and anxiety, and she became homeless after a series of abusive relationships.

She finally got proper treatment and other services through the VA medical center in Dublin. Bailey said she remains at the center as an assistant trainer in the Detector Canine Development Program, and she also works at Applebee’s. She’s restarting her life with a new sense of self worth, she said.

“It’s a struggle every day,” Bailey said.

The center is helping Bailey look for permanent housing through the federal Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing voucher program, Myles said.

Seventy-five people came to hear Tuesday’s presentation, nearly twice the expected turnout, and 10 had to be turned away due to lack of space, Myles said.

A similar gathering, also crowded, was held Monday in Albany, said Matthew Geyer, director of mental health at the VA medical center in Dublin.

A few years ago, Geyer, a psychologist, said he thought the solution to homelessness was simply providing a place for people to live.

But accounts he heard at a social workers’ meeting in Atlanta changed his mind: In Houston, Texas, a homeless veteran was picked out of a group of 20 people living under a bridge, and was given a place of his own. But the man stayed there less than three months, Geyer said.

“He had no support system whatsoever,” Geyer told the crowd. “All of his friends were where? Back under the bridge.”

It takes community partnerships to link the homeless with social and medical support, he said. Sixty to 80 percent of money spent on problems of homelessness actually goes to health care, showing that homelessness itself is just a symptom of other problems, Geyer said.

In the past few years, counts of homeless veterans have seen nationwide numbers drop from 132,000 to 62,000, so progress is being made, he said.

Tommy Phillips, community partnerships director for Pathways -- a nonprofit that connects service providers -- said his organization has a tremendous amount of information to help track homeless veterans and their families, which service providers can use to tailor their work. In a couple of months, Pathways will release a free smartphone and tablet app that lets people find the homelessness assistance services closest to their location.

Phillips said the federal definition of homelessness -- the threshold for receiving many benefits -- is fairly limited. Someone sleeping on a friend’s couch doesn’t meet it, he said.

Genetta Johnson, associate director for patient/nursing service at the VA medical center, noted that the definition wouldn’t cover those now returning from active service and at risk of becoming homeless.

Phillips agreed but said there are homelessness prevention programs available, too.

The VA medical center wants to promote collaboration on providing a variety of services, not just housing, Myles said. Those include homelessness prevention, various treatment programs, education and employment.

At a brief brainstorming session at the meeting’s end, various participants urged greater public education on the causes of homelessness, more communication between service providers themselves and input from veterans in general on how to deal with returning service members’ problems.

To contact writer Jim Gaines, call 744-4489.

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