Veterans Day

A man looked through clothing during the Richmond VA Medical Center’s 2013 Stand Down for the Homeless Veterans event. According to Homeward’s January 2019 count, 1 in 5 people in the greater Richmond region experiencing homelessness is a veteran.

Veterans Day is a time to show respect and gratitude—a time to thank those who served for all they have sacrificed to allow us to live the lives we live. To show gratitude to our nation’s veterans, it’s important that we not forget those who have not been quite as fortunate.

We often hear of the uplifting stories of veterans who have gone on to do wonderful things both during and after their time in the military; however, not all veterans can share these stories. Many have fallen on hard times since first receiving their discharge papers.

According to Homeward’s January 2019 point-in-time count—a biannual survey of the number of individuals experiencing homelessness throughout the greater Richmond region—1 in every 5 people experiencing homelessness in the area is a veteran. Taking into account the number of individuals and families surveyed, that’s nearly 100 veterans without a home at any given time.

This is an issue I have witnessed firsthand. HomeAgain works to end homelessness throughout our region with a group of skilled providers, led by Homeward of Virginia, who comprise the Greater Richmond Continuum of Care. As active members, HomeAgain serves veterans who are experiencing homelessness at two of our three crisis housing facilities. Our Veterans Bridge Housing Program uses 26 of the 79 total beds that form our Crisis Housing Program—and we are just one member of the continuum.

What’s especially heartbreaking is that many of these veterans are experiencing homelessness in large part because of their experiences during their military service.

As I reflect on this issue, I think of Michael, who was a resident in our Bridge Housing Program, located on the campus of the McGuire Veterans Affairs Medical Center on Richmond’s South Side. Following a 10-year career in the Army, Michael was battling post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which was having a significant negative impact on his life and marriage.

Finding it difficult to deal with the effects of Michael’s PTSD, his wife eventually left him to return to her family in Virginia. Refusing to give up on his marriage, Michael followed her here, but struggled to hold a job as he battled depression, suicidal thoughts and irritability—all as a result of his PTSD.

For nearly two decades, Michael had avoided addressing his PTSD because of the stigma society has long associated with mental illness, even though by this point, it had affected nearly every aspect of his life, eventually leaving him without a job, a family or a place to call home.

After finally checking himself into the VA hospital, Michael entered HomeAgain’s Veterans’ Bridge Housing Program. Since then, he has found a degree of stability, finally able to catch his breath and make plans for a healthy and stable future surrounded by vets who know and understand what he’s going through. He is now in the process of obtaining housing, where he and his wife plan to start a new chapter.

As Michael experienced firsthand, a little bit of care, compassion and understanding can go a long way. Like so many other individuals and families experiencing homelessness, Michael was misunderstood—a victim of societal stigmas surrounding mental illness and homelessness.

It’s time we reverse those stigmas. Instead of looking down on those experiencing homelessness, let’s work together to lift them up. Rather than stigmatizing mental illness, let’s commit to treating it.

For many of us, home has a special meaning. For some, that’s a place to relax and unwind after a long day at work. For others, it’s as simple as a place where they can find a roof over their head and food on their plate.

Countless vets, just like Michael, are unable to experience the peace and comfort home brings. Home isn’t something that’s taken for granted, it’s something to cherish and appreciate—something they have to work hard for and, even then, often feels just out of reach.

Those who risk their lives to protect all of us should not find themselves out in the cold with no place to call home. Our veterans shouldn’t be forgotten or marginalized—they should be uplifted and celebrated alongside the rest of their brothers and sisters in arms.

This Veterans Day, let’s take time to honor all those who have served, including those veterans who are experiencing homelessness.

Show them all care, compassion and respect. Don’t just thank them for their service, but show your thanks by supporting an organization that can help.

Together, we can break down barriers and get rid of the stigmas that have led to so many struggling in silence over the years. We can help all of our veterans discover the meaning of “home.”

Lorae D. Ponder is executive director of HomeAgain, dedicated to helping individuals and families experiencing homelessness secure and maintain a home again.

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