Updated: Dec 5, 2019
It was bitter cold January 2013 when we launched an ambitious venture with 12 people. Service members, some transitioning from active duty, veterans, military family members, a counselor, and two representatives from veteran service organizations, two Old Dominion University Human Services Interns, my husband Michael and me.
It was the first day of our launch to establish a working pilot program we called ‘Housing for Heroes’ that focused on serving homeless service members, veterans, and family members, in Hampton Roads Va. The coastal region of Virginia is known as ‘Region V’ to state planning authorities but our informal team knew it home to the largest population of military homelessness in the Old Dominion, an unbelievable number approaching 10,000 veterans as well as active duty homeless. How can that possibly happen someone recently asked me.
We were armed with effective emotional wellness tools & strategies, as well as lists of understanding landlords yet the sheer magnitude of the housing challenge was dizzying but we hoped to multiple our efforts by training others to replicate our program. So we leapt forward in faith that the Creator of Love and Strength had assembled an invisible army to battle the enemy of fear & discouragement. With the understanding that the initial battle was healing the mind and emotions of the homeless, we began teaching a proven wellness program called ‘Action Planning for Prevention & Recovery’ or APPR for short. It empowers the individual to manage their own challenges with personalized solutions and a flexible plan applicable in many dimensions of their lives.
Michael and I began to teach our select team this program endorsed by the US Department of Health & Human Services division the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration or ‘SAMHSA’. So for 16 hours, completed in two days, our team learned to create their own self-managed care plan centered on wellness & resiliency. The next step was additional ‘APPR Facilitator’ training so they were equipped to teach the homeless this vital skill. The real world result as these Facilitator/Coaches taught our military homeless population was graduation to permanent housing, employment, financial planning, further education and healing of family relationships. Dedicated, as peer themselves, knew the pain as many of us cannot. Coaches maintained weekly contact to assure progress forward.
As a self-sustaining non-profit, independent of government grants and restrictions, we insisted that all our clients take the foundational APPR course before we sought permanent housing options. Some did not appreciate the wisdom of that approach yet quickly perceived how the program honored their healthy choices and empowered them to drive forward when the going got tough. We were teaching them to fish, not merely handing them some sushi.
The program was expanded to sites across the Hampton Roads areas to include Tidewater Community College or TCC (Center for Military and Veteran Education) in Virginia Beach, Fox Hill apartments in Hampton and the VA Medical Center at the tip of the Peninsula with the assistance of Goodwill Industries in Suffolk and Portsmouth. With such diverse participants our program was beginning to feel like a ‘community effort’ to tackle the problem.
Of that core group of pioneers that January morn some grew into my ‘staff’ working by my side for the past six years. They were joined by more TCC interns, The Mission Continues Fellows, and Old Dominion University interns who were moved by our mission, leading other community volunteers our way. Until recently, we have never ‘employed or staff’, but they were employed by others, making a difference, and paying ‘Hope’ forward. Many of the housed veterans returned for training and then reached out to their hard-to-reach brethren as true Ambassadors of Hope.
The pessimistic, the skeptics, ridiculed the optimistic vision of our program as wasted on “drug addicts, alcoholics and the mentally ill” who did not want the help or too addled to work the plan. The community knew better and rallied behind our effort, transcending that hopeless stereotype. That conventional view is a myth, both for the civilian and military homeless communities.
In personal interviews with APPR graduates we learned that our peer approach and the APPR strategies were effectively ‘healing invisible wounds’, some never before identified by the graduate themselves. For 3 years we kept track on our clients, collected data, and began honing in on some core issues. Obviously each case is unique, and handled that way, yet common denominators became clear. The most important predictor of homeless by far was the number of deployments, the greater the number the worst the injury to the body, mind and spirit. This held true for all conflicts in recent history from Vietnam, Desert Storm through Post 9-/11 conflicts, all over the world, even now—more.
Here is the truth you need to know, of the 101 veterans we began to aid, January to December 2013, 47 of them were Post 9/11, 27 OIF deployments or 20 OEF deployments, and 12 of them were deployed for both OIF AND OEF. Honorably discharged, with 4 awarded highest honors and medals for duty and heroism, 18 of them were diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress, 3 of them have Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI), 11 of them labeled ‘mental health’ related anxiety, depression, & panic disorders. Three were general discharge or other than honorable discharged. And 6 men and women had suffered military sexual assault, and 13 domestic violence victims.
· 49 of them were considered dependent on alcohol, prescription drug, or substance abuse, along with PTS, TBI, Mental Health
But stop and think for a moment—these aren’t just numbers they are our husbands, wives, sons, daughters, grandchildren, cousins, & friends……just like my father, a three war veteran, and Michael’s father, World War II veteran. We know first- hand, what these numbers really mean.
Essentially, think of this, since OIF began in 2001, then OEF as well to 2013, these soldiers in 2013, had the invisible and visible wound of wars – and needed comprehensive continuum- of- care, body, soul, and spirit.
Based on our provision of the APPR wellness and resiliency, and Peer Coaching, 95% of them achieved successful ‘healing and recovery’, permanent housing, some went back to school on their GI Bill funds, completing programs successfully. They and others went to work, and sustained their lives for the three years we stayed connected, at first every three months, then six months. In the time since, knowing they could call us for help and new resources if ‘life events’ interrupted their well-being, there were only two, and it was on sudden unemployment based on business closing.
My interns, fellows, volunteers, and other ‘helping hands’ continued the program in Hampton Roads, with total homeless served of 205 as of 2015, and continue to answer the call when it comes.
2016 was a year to re-focus on permanent supportive housing for our Wounded Warriors, and to include their families ‘in a place to call home’. Our goal is to prevent homelessness-- and the tragic loss of family by divorce, and still ever escalating suicides.
The challenge now, is that after 18 years of war, some military being deployed as much as three and four deployments (see our www.veteranpathwayshome.org FAQ pages), consider carefully the ‘the statistics’ and imagine them as ‘people’ our young Post 9/11 combat and service related injuries ratings of 60% or more, impacting body, mind, and spirit?
We’ve planned this for a long time, now is the time-- opening a Warrior Way Wellness Center, in January 2020. That is our vision, our goal, providing a retreat, for renewal, embracing wellness & resiliency, feeling whole. Expanding our reach, nationwide to invite Service Members, Veterans & Families (SMVF), to come, Hope is waiting for you here. Check on next week’s BLOG.
We have never accepted donations or grant monies for our Missions, and we aren’t asking for any now, but you can help by visiting Amazon.com to purchase any of my books. The story of my father, and when the war started at home, who said ‘Our story will help someone else and their family— just do it.”
The web addresses are:
When Hell Freezes Over . . . the Gift: https://www.amazon.com/When-Hell-Freezes-Over-Journeys-ebook/dp/B07KT6NDBV/ref=sr_1_1?keywords=Schlerf+when+hell+freezes+over+kindle&qid=1571519902&s=books&sr=1-1