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New Orleans Works to End Veteran Homelessness

By Claudette Roulo
American Forces Press Service

NEW ORLEANS, Jan. 18, 2013 – In 2009, the same year the Volunteers of America of Greater New Orleans Veteran’s Transitional Facility opened, President Barack Obama and the Veterans Affairs Department set a goal to end veteran homelessness by 2015.

Lisa Battaglia, wife of the senior enlisted advisor to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, visited the facility here yesterday and spoke to American Forces Press Service after visiting with residents and staff.

“As a woman veteran myself, finding ways in getting our veterans off the streets remains a priority for my husband and me,” she said.

The facility arose out of a need for ways to assist homeless veterans transition out of homelessness, said Melissa Haley, director of supportive services for veteran families for Volunteers of America.

Its existence is a sign that people in the greater New Orleans area, as in cities across the country, have taken the president’s call to action to heart, Battaglia said.

Around 400 veterans have come through the transition program since the facility opened, said Gerald Rooks, the program director. About 88 percent successfully completed it, meaning they are permanently off the streets, he said. “We try every day to increase that number,” he added.

Veterans arrive at the facility in a number of ways, Rooks said. The staff seeks out veterans at places where the homeless gather, he said, but veterans can either self-refer or be referred by the VA.

Norman Adams, a Navy veteran residing at the facility, said he found the transitional facility through the staff’s outreach program.

“I retired from nursing after 45 years,” Adams said. “I lived a pretty good life until it just went off the road.”

After several months of homelessness -- during which he made his way to New Orleans -- outreach personnel told him about the transitional facility.

“This is where I belong right now. … I’m going to move on,” he said, “but I want to be right when I move on.”

The main facility has space to house up to 40 male veterans, while two other locations can house a total of 16 men. Currently, residents range in age from 34 to 68, Rooks said.

“We’re starting to see younger vets,” he added, noting that four homeless veterans in their 20’s have sought assistance from the program in the past 12 months.

Rooks said he’s also seen an increase in female veterans with children seeking assistance through the facility’s non-resident programs. He added that there are only 5 beds in all of New Orleans available to female veterans, and they don’t accept children.

The term “homeless veteran” should be an oxymoron, Haley said.

“When you’re a veteran, you have a home,” she said. “This is America, this is your community.” Her goal, she said, is to ensure veterans are homeless for as short a period of time as possible.

The organization works closely with the city of New Orleans and the New Orleans regional Veterans Affairs office to find funding, educational opportunities, employment and housing for veterans, Rooks said.

Programs for residents include life skills classes like resume writing and money management, peer and group counseling and assistance with obtaining benefits from the VA, he said.

“I get to help fallen heroes get back on their feet,” he said.

“We are committed to working with people who hire veterans,” Haley said, “because we know that [veterans] have transferrable skill sets.”

“I’d hate to see what it would be like if the program wasn’t here for others,” said Wayne Duvall, an Army veteran residing at the transitional facility. “I’m prepared to make that transition … and get out.”

“When I first came here, it was just a hideout … I’d just get lost in the background,” said Adams. But the staff helped him get on track, he said, and he has reconnected with his family and found a place to volunteer his time.

“Those who have served this nation as veterans should never find themselves on the streets, living without care and without hope,” VA Secretary Eric K. Shinseki said when he announced an initiative in 2011 highlighting local services for homeless veterans, their families and those at risk of becoming homeless.

VA offers a 24-hour toll-free telephone number, staffed by trained professionals, to help homeless veterans, their families and at-risk people. The number is 877-4AID-VET, or 877-424-3838.

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