In recent years, life has been a battle for Patrick Billups. Now, with help from a United Way of Central Alabama program designed for folks like him, the 51-year-old disabled Navy vet feels as though the tide of that battle is turning in his favor.
“I can only, you know, take hats off to organizations that take time out to help veterans in situations of homelessness and depression,” Billups said. “To have organizations such as the United Way to be there for support is a real great thing. It has really motivated me.”
Billups is one of the success stories of Priority Veteran, a federally funded program that, through the United Way of Central Alabama, is targeting homeless veterans or vets on the verge of homelessness in every Alabama county except for Mobile and Baldwin. Its goal is to help 500 veterans find stable housing or help them stay in the homes they have. The program was supposed to start last October, but that timetable was hobbled by the shutdown of most of the federal government for the first half of that month.
Still, by the middle of this month, according to Priority Veteran executive director Jerry Satterwhite, more than 440 vets — nearly 90 of whom had families — were participating in Priority Veteran. Helping them were 15 caseworkers, based in offices in Birmingham, Tuskegee, Tuscaloosa and Huntsville, and a financial coach based in Birmingham. Each of the four offices also has a site manager.
The Obama administration and the federal Department of Veterans Affairs want to eliminate homelessness among veterans by the end of 2015. To that end, the VA department has given millions of dollars to various entities around the country, including more than $6 million in Supportive Services for Veteran Families (SSVF) grants it provided to Alabama agencies last year. Of that total, $2 million went to Priority Veteran. The rest of money went to Aletheia House in Birmingham, which received more than $1 million to serve about 260 veterans in Jefferson, Shelby and St. Clair Counties; to Family Endeavors, $2 million, to serve 1,400 clients primarily in Shelby, St. Clair and in the City of Montgomery, and to Housing First Inc., $1.3 million, to serve 200 in the Gulf Coast counties of Mobile and Baldwin.
“I think we’re filling a real need,” said Priority Veteran’s Satterwhite, the recently retired chief of social work service at the Birmingham VA Medical Center. He said Priority Veteran combines person-to-person assistance with resources – financial and otherwise – from United Way as well as the many agencies that United Way supports.
United Way of Central Alabama President and CEO Drew Langloh said Priority Veteran was not designed “to create a closed system just for vets but to find a way to mainstream vets into community services with some sensitivity to their needs.
“Our counselors and our case managers have connections to community-based services that would help anybody else in the same situation,” Langloh added.
“There are things that we can do that the VA can’t do,” Satterwhite said, citing as an example a veteran who “needs to go into housing but he…may not be able to make an apartment deposit or utility deposit.
“If they’re eligible, you know, we can help with that and that takes that barrier away.”
Earlier this year, Patrick Billups was facing this and other barriers, including depression and post traumatic stress disorder, as well as the threatening environment in the Tuscaloosa apartment complex in which he was living. While hospitalized at the Tuscaloosa VA Medical Center, Billups was connected with Priority Veteran caseworker Tiffany Poe, and she arranged to pay some of his bills at his apartment. But he said that after he returned home, his surroundings were not what he wanted. Drug dealers, prostitutes and other unsavory types were all too common. After he began speaking out against the situation, he figured it was no longer safe for him to stay there.
In early March, he moved to Birmingham, took up residence in the Salvation Army shelter north of downtown, and was there about three weeks before hooking up again with Priority Veteran, this time with caseworker Orlando Boston.
“I found a home actually relatively quickly, and I am in a two bedroom home,” Billups said. “It realy turned out great. I couldn’t have did it without them. Financially I couldn’t really have paid the security deposit or the first month’s rent, so they took care of that for me.”
Boston, himself a Navy vet, called Billups “one of the best clients I have.
“He was very understanding about the process and we moved pretty smoothly through everything,” Boston said. “Everything just clicked for him.”
“Some people say I hit the lottery,” Billups said.
Priority Veteran staffers say most of the clients they serve are single males, high school graduates, and that many come from a low-income background, which was a big reason they joined the military. Julie Shirah, a Birmingham Priority Veteran caseworker, said she has seen men in their mid-20s who have served in the Iraq or Afghanistan wars and who are “mentally challenged by what they’ve seen and not really realizing what’s going on with them.” Drug and alcohol abuse are now part of their profiles, and now they are “re-learning how to live,” she said.
Shirah also has seen other veterans for whom the year 2010 is a bad memory, because it’s the year they lost their job, and much of the ensuing time found them angry, frustrated and uncertain.
“It takes a lot of pride for them to step up and say, ‘I need help’ in 2014,” Shirah said. “And they’re just now asking for it.”
And when they ask, Shirah said, they often are seeking someone who can advocate – make their case with a potential landlord, a VA official or even a potential employer; navigate – help them figure out VA health care or other facets of “the system”; and do it, when necessary, with “a soft hand.”
“It takes a lot of soft hand…that some of the veterans don’t have because they’re frustrated,” Shirah said.
Veterans have been in the ranks of Alabama’s homeless population for years, and many of them have found help through programs that weren’t targeting just vets. Because of that fact, a question naturally follows: Are new programs like Priority Veteran duplicating what is already being done?
Michelle Farley, executive director of One Roof, a coordinating agency for homeless service providers in Birmingham and Jefferson, St. Clair and Shelby counties, said in an email that the Supportive Services for Veteran Families money that went to Priority Veteran, Aletheia House and Family Endeavors constituted “a new funding source for our community.” And “because there was little guidance from the VA, and because each of the grants listed strong goals, there were some initial concerns,” Farley said.
“While I was extremely skeptical about three area grants that were virtually identical, I have since backed off of that a bit,” Farley said. “Some of the vets that these programs are moving into stability are the hardest to house – those that are chronically homeless [and] those that are distrustful of anything to do ‘with the government.’” She also said Priority Veteran and the other two programs give area veterans options. If one does not seem to be working for them, they can try another, as long as the program that they are leaving has not put resources to work on their behalf, Satterwhite said.
“It has been helpful for these men and women to be able to change providers if they get annoyed with the one working with them,” Farley said. “They hear exactly the same thing but a different person is telling the story…so moving them off the streets is finally a reality.”
Acknowledging that “there are a lot of people out there that are serving the veterans right now,” Satterwhite said Priority Veteran does not seek to “duplicate services ” and that a staffer monitors different programs around the state to “make sure we have say in that and [that] they know what we are doing.” Here at home, he said, the United Way program officials meet regularly with their counterparts at Aletheia House and Family Endeavors.
Farley said all three of the SSVF programs have applied for funding to continue their efforts beyond this year, and that she has written supportive letters on their behalf.
“Each grantee has specific skills and other offerings for clients, and I am comfortable that, since all clients are accounted for in a single database, services are not being duplicated,” Farley said. “I cannot say that about non-SSVF resources, though…I am concerned that, because of the huge push to end veteran homelessness by 2015, there are perhaps resources that are being duplicated, but of course, One Roof is highly attuned to that possibility, so duplication or wastefulness may just be my imagination.”
The Birmingham area’s homeless veterans population has been dropping, according to data in the annual Point in Time homeless survey required by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development and compiled by One Roof.
The latest survey, taken Jan. 22, listed the number of homeless veterans at 174, down 10 percent from last January and down more than 60 percent from January of 2005. Ninety-percent of the homeless vets were male.