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Building Trust with Veterans Experiencing Homelessness
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“Building trust with a Veteran is the first step of many. Without trust, you will not be able to move forward. If you push too hard, you could lose whatever contact you have with the person.” Bobbi Jo Evans shares how encouragement and companionship developed into trust as she worked with three different Veterans on their journeys to exit homelessness.

Veterans are a unique group of individuals. They may come to an agency with a great deal of paranoia and distrust of the “system.” Many have depression that often goes untreated. In the last three months, I have had the privilege to meet and work with three Veterans who are experiencing homelessness. Each of their situations turned out to be unique, but our working relationship involved one common element: trust.

Building trust with a Veteran is the first step of many. Without trust, you will not be able to move forward. If you push too hard, you could lose whatever contact you have with the person. Here are my stories of working to build trust with three Veterans: Derrick, Joe, and Glenn.

Back From Service, with Nowhere to Go

Derrick* came to my agency, Harbor Health Services, after returning from service overseas. He came home to find that his wife had left him. He was now homeless. He was employed and still active in the reserves. Fortunately, his income allowed him to afford rent.

Working with Derrick was a challenge due to his depression. He had been overseas for over two years and returned to a life in the United States that had been turned around. He was apprehensive about moving into his own place and maintaining a new apartment if he was called back to duty.

We spoke with his landlords regularly and established that his apartment would be secure even if he were to be recalled to duty. The landlords provided documentation to preserve his housing, a benefit they offered to all military personnel. With this new information, Derrick felt a bit more relaxed at venturing on his own.

We were able to provide him with the first month’s rent to assist a quick move. It was a fast process that provided a young soldier with stability and hope for his future.

Working to Build Trust with a Vietnam Veteran

Joe* came to us through a referral from the local police who had found him staying in his truck at a commuter parking lot. Joe was very distrustful of everyone. His paranoia was mainly directed at people who claimed they were going to help him. Over the years, when he had accepted help, his family had stolen from him. He had been told he was not eligible to receive any type of benefits or assistance.

As a Vietnam Veteran, Joe was distraught that the country he had fought for would do nothing to help him. After meeting Joe, I immediately started the process to obtain his DD-214, which he needed to obtain services at the Veterans Administration (VA). While waiting for his documents, I spent time with him daily, bringing him to the soup kitchen. After he received his DD-214, I accompanied him to the VA Homeless Program. The intake process began, and within the two weeks Joe was housed in one of their transitional housing programs. He began attending daily groups and meetings and was on his way to receiving benefits, including income he had been eligible for over two years.

During his stay within the VA’s system, I was consulted numerous times about his treatment. He had established a relationship with me and was having difficulty trusting the new workers who had come into his life. To begin the process of showing Joe that the people helping him are trustworthy, we arranged a meeting with everyone. Together, we’ll move forward slowly.

The Story of a Survivalist

Joe introduced me to Glenn.* They had met at the local soup kitchen. Glenn was over 80 years old and a Veteran of the Korean War. He was living in the woods in a makeshift camp. When I first met him he told me about his life, which included a wife in a nursing home. He told me about the things he had seen serving his country. He did not want to go to the VA as he had been treated poorly there through the years. Joe convinced him to let me help.

Glenn was extremely distrustful. He had seen and experienced a lot and knew that sometimes, the system does not work. Glenn was receiving Social Security income, but was choosing to live in the woods, rather than to deal with what he called “the white coats.”

My agency was able to provide Glenn with a motel stay to get him through some of the extreme cold weather and snowstorms our region has experienced this winter. After this was exhausted, we were able to convince him to take a bed in our respite program. He was not happy about this situation, as he was now living with three other men in an apartment. Glenn stated that he did it only so I would not have to worry about him.

We have made several trips to the VA Homeless Program and Glenn was accepted into the Veteran Affairs Supportive Housing program (HUD-VASH). The programs provide vouchers for Veterans and operate similarly to Section 8. Glenn will have an apartment of his choosing that meets the Fair Market Rent guidelines. He will pay approximately 30% of his income towards the rent. Glenn is now that much closer to obtaining the benefits that have been long overdue to him.

The Importance of Trust and Acceptance

When you are working with a Veteran, you must listen and allow him to move at his own pace. While it pained me to see Glenn continue to sleep in a camp when it was snowing and the temperature was well below freezing, he was 'cold weather' trained and considered himself a survivalist. This was something I had to accept and allow him to exist as he had been with no pressure from me. I provided him with companionship and encouragement. Eventually, that developed into trust.

Both Joe and Glenn have been talking with other Veterans and telling them it is not so bad to ask someone to help. They tell them that there are people who will work to help them get what they deserve, and see them through the process to the end. We are all survivalists and we all need a little help sometimes.

*Not their real names. All names have been changed.

Bobbi Jo Evans is the Housing Specialist at Harbor Health Services, Inc., in Branford, Connecticut, where she provides housing assistance to people with mental illness and works in eviction prevention. In addition, Bobbi Jo has worked for eight years in the housing field as a property manager specializing in subsidized housing.

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