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VA Homeless Programs

 

Message from Monica Diaz, Executive Director, VHA Homeless Programs Office

October 2022

Monica Diaz

Hollywood and Veteran homelessness don’t intersect often. But recent headlines remind us of something we have known for a long time—no matter an individual’s income level, housing status, or privilege, one threat remains universal: domestic abuse.

In the United States, about 1 in 3 women and 1 in 4 men report experiencing intimate partner violence (IPV)—a specific type of domestic violence that refers to physical, verbal, emotional, and sexual abuse, as well as stalking, between intimate partners. Tragically, research suggests that Veterans are twice as likely to experience IPV compared to the general population.

Like all victims, Veterans who experience IPV are impacted in ways that may be difficult to recognize. In addition to more visible injuries, victims of IPV are more likely to report having asthma, cardiovascular disease, central nervous system disorders, chronic pain syndromes, diabetes, difficulty sleeping, gastrointestinal disorders, along with a host of other negative mental health outcomes.

In our work, we are all too familiar with another consequence of domestic violence: homelessness. We know that too often, individuals stay in relationships with abusive partners simply because they have nowhere else to live. Furthermore, fleeing domestic violence is often cited as the origin of an individual’s experience with homelessness.

This October, I urge us all to observe Domestic Violence Awareness Month through two critical actions.

First, take the White Ribbon Pledge: “I pledge to never commit, excuse or stay silent about sexual harassment, sexual assault or domestic violence against others.” Inspired by the White Ribbon Organization, White Ribbon VA is a national call to action to eliminate sexual harassment, sexual assault, and domestic violence across VA by promoting a positive change in culture so that the actions outlined in the pledge become the organizational norm.

Second, talk about domestic violence and IPV with the Veterans you work with. All Veterans will benefit from knowing the signs of healthy and unhealthy relationships—even if they currently are in a healthy relationship, this information could be critical to helping them recognize the signs of IPV among a friend, or in the future. And if a Veteran is in an unsafe living situation—either due to a relationship or other circumstances, emphasize that no matter the context, VA can help.

This proved true for James Sapp: an Army Veteran whose living situation was dependent upon a relationship he describes as “toxic.” Sapp came to VA for help with housing, as well as for treatment to support his addiction to opioids. Sapp found support with both challenges, thanks to the incredible teams at St. Louis VA Medical Center-Jefferson Barracks, and The H.O.U.S.E. Inc., a Missouri organization offering support for addiction recovery and VA partner.

Today, James Sapp, AS, BSW, MSW, LSW, is a licensed social worker and dedicates his days to giving back to Veterans. His caseload is primarily Veterans struggling with substance use disorder.

Sapp’s story is an inspiring illustration of how multiple programs offered by VA and our partners can work together to provide a fresh start for Veterans by equipping them with the tools they need to find, pursue, and excel in their next mission.

In our work, we know that helping Veterans find this mission—or purpose—is essential to exiting homelessness and living a fulfilled, independent life. Likewise, we know this sense of purpose is often directly tied to employment.

“[Our careers are] just part of who we are. It’s part of our role in the world,” says Carma Heitzmann, national director for Homeless Veterans Community Employment Services (HVCES) at VA.

I loved listening to this month’s episode of Ending Veteran Homelessness, in which Carma joins Shawn Liu, HPO’s multi-talented director of communications and outstanding podcast host, to talk about the importance of employment and what we can do to help Veterans exiting homelessness find meaningful roles.

I especially appreciate how Carma and Shawn dispel the narrative that if individuals experiencing homelessness “just got a job” they could change their lives. The episode does an excellent job outlining why this logic is misconstrued, oversimplified, and harmful to all individuals experiencing homelessness.

While those who work with vulnerable populations every day can see the underlying societal barriers to re-entering the job market, these challenges remain largely invisible to many of our peers and colleagues in different fields. I urge everyone to listen to “Jobs, Jobs, Jobs” and to share the episode with your networks. It may just lead to an individual changing their perspective, or an employer making the decision to prioritize hiring Veterans.

And as we work to help our Veterans find meaningful careers, please know that in addition to the tangible job-related resources you are sharing, you are providing something even more powerful—something that supports every aspect of a Veteran’s life: hope.

As Cynthia Perkins, another inspirational Veteran, recently shared, “VA Boston restored my faith and my hope… I can’t begin to tell you the doors that have opened.” As I write, doors are opening for Veterans like Cynthia across the country—all thanks to you.