U.S. Vets celebrates five years of helping homeless veterans
When people pass a homeless veteran, some may feel sad at seeing an American hero living in such a depressed state. Barbara Mikkelsen, the Prescott program manager for U.S. Vets, is familiar with that feeling; her organization has been helping homeless veterans for the past five years in northern Arizona.
"We're celebrating our fifth anniversary. We started on Jan. 16, 2003, helping a single homeless veteran at the time," Mikkelsen said Wednesday. "We lease space here from the VA hospital. We've got 58 beds for homeless veterans. Our mission is to re-integrate homeless veterans to their highest level of self-sufficiency."
The Prescott U.S. Vets group is one of 10 such local chapters nationwide. The organization started in 1993 in California. U.S. Vets is a non-profit organization that receives the majority of its money from federal grants and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
"We take in homeless veterans for up to two years, providing them with housing and all the services they need to get back into the workforce," Mikkelsen said. "Our number one priority is sobriety. About 86 percent of the vets who come through our program are dealing with substance abuse issues. We require 90 days of sobriety before they can enter into the program, and we enforce our zero tolerance policy with random urinalysis tests."
The Prescott U.S. Vets group coordinates with local organizations to get veterans into substance abuse counseling programs and education to help them re-enter the workforce. They also help them with updating their resumes and getting a job.
"We've had about 650 locally who've gone through our transitional program," Mikkelsen said. "Each case is unique, and a case manager aids the vets with their particular challenges. We offer them the opportunity, but they have to work hard for it, they have to really want it."
One person benefiting from the program is Army veteran George Henkel. Henkel was homeless in Ohio for several years when he learned about the Bob Stump VA Medical Center's domiciliary program. After completing that program he entered into U.S. Vets transitional housing, where he overcame his drug and alcohol addiction, and recently found a job.
"I'd never have imagined I could get my life back together like this," Henkel said. "I'm 55 years old, and I've used drugs for 42 of those years, but I've been clean and sober for 16 months. I'm working as a peer-support counselor, now. I've made a lot of great friends, and I'm extremely grateful to the VA, and U.S. Vets, for giving me this chance to get back on my feet, to start clean again."
Henkel said the program is difficult and demanding, but for those who "want it bad enough" it provides all that is needed to leave a life of homelessness and re-enter the workforce. He said many homeless veterans are not aware that resources like U.S. Vets exist, and Mikkelsen agreed that getting the word out is one of the group's biggest challenges.
U.S. Vets Division Director Brad Bridwell said the group started when a shift in affordable housing made the epidemic of homeless veterans too evident to ignore.
"About one-third of homeless single males are veterans, but only about one percent of veterans are homeless," Bridwell said. "Our program is designed specifically with those homeless veterans in mind, and we've found it enables us to take advantage of the natural camaraderie between veterans. They offer each other a lot of support, since so many of them are struggling with the same issues."
Mikkelsen said the Prescott group's challenges are a lack of public transportation, and an absence of affordable housing. She said one of their goals is to build a 10-unit efficiency apartment. The group currently rents a home that houses three veterans.
"We've helped a lot of people climb up from some terrible situations and get their lives back over these five years," Mikkelsen said. "I hope we're able to continue to serve the vets. If anyone's deserving of our support, after all, it's the veterans."
The waiting time for getting into the U.S. Vets transitional housing program is usually between two weeks and two months. For more information see the website www.usvetsinc.org or call 445-4860, extension 5906.