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… Homeless, but not Hopeless
By Maria Jannace
With the rate of U.S. homeless veterans doubling in the last five years,
organizations like Veteran Homestead are working hard to help achieve the “zero homeless veterans by 2015” goal.
Picture it. The year is 2015. Though the scars of wars from as far back as 50 years ago still grip the minds and bodies of hundreds of thousands of American veterans, there is some comfort in knowing that at least they all have a place they can call home.
Picture it. The year is 2012. More than 200,000 brave men and women who fought for your freedom are without homes. More than 400,000 veterans will experience homelessness at some time during the course of this year. It is stunning to know that veterans make up nearly a quarter of this nation’s entire homeless population.
A noble goal by the Department of Veterans Affairs is to end veteran homelessness by 2015. The crystal ball is a bit fuzzy, but given the critical nature of today’s statistics, nothing short of a miracle will bring the number of homeless vets down to a mere zero in the less than three short years ahead. The United States government is taking action and in July of this year, the U. S. Senate unanimously passed H.R. 1627, a bill that addresses several areas of concern for veterans, including health care, housing, education, and benefits. Thankfully, there are organizations founded and funded by private citizens that are also leading the charge to end homelessness among American veterans. One such organization is Veteran Homestead headquartered in Fitchburg, Massachusetts.
Veteran Homestead founder and CEO Leslie Lightfoot served in the Army as a medic from 1967-1970. She spent two years at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany during the Vietnam War, witnessing – on a daily basis – injuries and deaths unimaginable by civilians. Her experience led her to become a Board Certified Expert in Traumatic Stress and she holds two Psychology degrees from Fitchburg State University. She has been serving the needs of the veteran community ever since she left the Army in 1970. In 1993, Lightfoot founded Veteran Homestead that now has six facilities throughout New England and Puerto Rico. It is a crushing task that faces Lightfoot and her accomplished team each day, but progress is being made.
“Almost half of all homeless veterans in America fought in Vietnam,” Lightfoot said. “But there are as many as 20,000 vets who have returned from Iraq and Afghanistan and have become homeless in the past five years, including women veterans with children.”
Women are the fastest growing segment of veteran homelessness.
“Our military men and women who come back from war with traumatic brain injury and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) are truly the ‘walking wounded,’” Lightfoot said. “They may not be missing an arm or a leg, but many are damaged deeply.”
The mission of Veteran Homestead is to minimize and even reverse that damage by providing medical, psychological, and spiritual care. For people like Adam Morse, Veteran Homestead has become a lifeline.
Morse was still in high school when he joined the National Guard, never expecting to see battle. Fate intervened, and Morse returned from battle emotionally scarred by the weight of his experience that led him to alcohol and drugs – a not unusual plight for homeless veterans. Morse has been sober for a year now, and he truly believes that Veteran Homestead saved his life and saved his family.
Andrew Rosacker had been a member of an elite Marine Corps anti-terrorist security team but was working with a civilian contractor for the State Department when he served in Iraq. Entering the city of Fallujah, he spotted a car speeding toward his vehicle. The car refused to stop. Rosacker opened fire. The vehicle stopped. The driver looked up at Rosacker. Smiled. Then pushed the button.
The explosion threw Rosacker from his vehicle causing traumatic brain injury. Then he was shot in the stomach and declared dead. After he was revived, he returned home and was diagnosed with PTSD and depression. He subsequently suffered a stroke that left his left side paralyzed. Sometimes his depression got so bad he would just turn off the lights and sit in the corner of a room and cry. Imagining a 6-foot-1 tough marine (and former Seal team member) crying alone is heartbreaking. But Rosacker, and many others, are making steady inroads into recovery at Veteran Homestead facilities including the recently opened Northeast Veteran Training and Rehabilitation Center (NVTRC) on 10 acres of land given by Mount Wachusett Community College in Gardner.
The NVTRC, the only facility of its kind in the United States, sits on ten acres with twenty 2-bedroom homes, an indoor swimming pool, weight/exercise room, gymnasium, and other amenities designed to prepare residents for a life in which their disabilities will be less of a burden.
“The loss of a limb, a disfiguring burn, a traumatic brain injury, or an emotional scar due to post-traumatic stress are all life changing events that affect both the veteran and his family,” Lightfoot said. “The idea of not being a whole person or having your loved ones perceive you as someone much different than you were can leave emotional and psychological scars that dwarf the physical.”
NVTRC’s focus is on education (offering college courses in a partnership with Mount Wachusett Community College) and physical, occupational, and emotional therapy with an emphasis on family counseling along with the life and recreational skills that are so often taken for granted. The two-bedroom homes at the Center enable wounded warriors to practice daily living skills and provide privacy for both the veteran and his or her family. There is a therapy-dog training program there as well. Veteran Homestead endeavors to replicate the NVTRC facility model all across the United States.
Veteran Homestead is working to secure grants, but much of their support comes from private citizens and corporations that understand the importance of helping veterans revive their pride and become productive citizens. Unlike many charitable organizations, at Veteran Homestead, 90% of all funds go directly to programs that benefit the veterans. Only 10% is used to cover administrative support. And at all Veteran Homestead facilities, compassion is key. Beginning with Lightfoot herself and permeating throughout the staff at all six locations is a pervasive sense that “there but for the grace of God, go I.” Many on staff are veterans themselves.
They have lived the lives of their clients. They have been in the trenches and understand the gap in which veterans sometimes fall. Sometimes, it’s more than a gap – it’s a chasm. Lightfoot’s children – as she herself was – are exposed to the ordeals that can beset a body and mind with PTSD. Lightfoot’s Army daughter is a veteran of Kosovo, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Her Air Force daughter is a veteran of Desert Storm and Iraq and has been in and out of Afghanistan. Lightfoot’s National Guard Son is a veteran of Afghanistan.
“Every soldier is someone’s child,” Lightfoot said. “We never forget that, and whether they are 22 or 62, these veterans have earned and deserve the utmost help and hope and a life of dignity. It is our deepest desire that by giving them a home – whether short or long term – and helping the healing process, these American heroes can accomplish the dreams they set forth before the cruel arms of war assaulted their lives.”
Dignity is at the center of daily life at Veteran Hospice Homestead in Fitchburg, a residential facility dedicated to veterans living with life threatening illness and the only privately run, veteran-specific hospice in the country. Hospice specialists provide innovative transitional housing programs for homeless veterans who are diagnosed with terminal illness and are no longer able to care for themselves.
Hero Homestead in Leominster is a facility designed for elderly veterans. Residents are encouraged to help each other and attend to as many of their own needs as possible.
Also in Leominster, Veteran Homestead operates Armistice Homestead in a beautiful neighborhood where veterans with a progressive outlook enjoy innovative programs that enhance camaraderie and accomplishment.
Ever looking to create environments that help veterans immerse themselves fully into quality living, Veteran Homestead developed The Victory Farm in New Hampshire, the first of its kind in the United States. It’s an 80-acre working organic vegetable farm that offers a lifestyle change to homeless veterans who have not been successful transitioning from residential treatment programs to independent or transitional housing. Veterans are responsible for the feeding and caring of dozens of animals and tend crops as well.
In Puerto Rico, Veteran Homestead’s large residential home – and the only such facility in this U.S. territory – is located in beautiful Caguas. The focus of Hacienda de Veteranos is restoring a sense of self-worth with therapy sessions provided by the Veterans Administration and in-house case managers.
With the rate of U.S. homeless veterans doubling in the last five years, organizations like Veteran Homestead are working hard to help achieve the “zero homeless veterans by 2015” goal. Lightfoot says she will continue to grow her nonprofit organization for “as long as it takes.” In January, Governor Patrick Murray announced that the state of Massachusetts had achieved a 21% decline in veteran homelessness from a year ago. Perhaps Massachusetts can lead the way in eliminating homelessness among our nation’s walking wounded. Perhaps Veteran Homestead can replicate its programs in other states so that they, too, can give help and hope to their citizens who have fallen into the chasm of homelessness after serving their country. Perhaps there is a future where heroes like former U. S. Navy Seal Andrew Rosacker never need to utter the words, “Sometimes I just cry.”