The View from Someone Else’s Boots - How Employers Can Provide Support for Homeless Employees

By: Edward Crenshaw, CEO DESTIN Enterprises, LLC

This past Fourth of July holiday, I brought my family with me to visit Philadelphia for a weekend of good food, tourism, patriotism, entertainment and fireworks displays. We were in good spirits and had a great deal of time to completely explore the “City of Brotherly Love.” Because I happen to love art, one of the planned family activities on the itinerary was a Philadelphia mural tour. Everyone was very excited and as expected, it was fascinating to learn of the history, craftsmanship and symbolism associated with each mural. During the tour, we learned that Philadelphia has more murals than any other city in the world; however, one specific mural (more than the others) particularly struck me and created an unexpected emotional and thought provoking experience. It was the mural titled “Finding Home,” located on 21 South 13th Street, created by Josh Serantitis and Kathryn Pennepacker. We discovered the goal of the artists was to shed light on the issue of homelessness, break down the stigma and bring people together. I further learned that the mural is sponsored by the Philadelphia Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual disAbility Services.

Beyond the distinctive ‘3D’ image of the mural, it strikingly portrayed images of deserving people who happen to be homeless and in need of help, along with an image of a person involved in a weaving project (the event was open to the general public) that was actually used to create the canvas for the mural. The mural’s profound symbolism also told an inspirational story of some of the unique challenges faced by people who are homeless (including the need for family support), and the mural is also highlighted by the word… “IN” on one side, and the words “VISIBLE” and “DIGNITY” on the others. I particularly found all of this to be very ironic, considering that this mural represented faces of people in need (that are normally obvious to thousands of people), yet communicates their seemingly invisible existence to many others that take their situations for granted and have little empathy and understanding for those that may be less fortunate.

After viewing and learning of the mural, my mind immediately conjured images of the thousands of veterans that have honorably and courageously served our country - that are now considered homeless. As an advocate of veterans in the workforce, it also made me think of the many altruistic employer organizations that are actively hiring veterans, but are also hesitant to proactively address this profound and prevalent issue.

Facts Regarding Homeless Veterans

The US Department of Veterans Affairs Reports:

  • 13% of the adult population of homeless people are veterans (about 62,619 on any given night)
  • Most are male, many are single and exist in urban environments (8% of homeless populations are female and the numbers are rising steadily)
  • Many suffer from mental disorders, substance and alcohol abuse
  • Roughly 40% of all homeless veterans are African American or Hispanic, despite only accounting for 10.4% and 3.4% of the U.S. veteran population, respectively
  • Approximately 9% are between the ages of 18 and 30, and 41% are between the ages of 31 and 50 (Conversely, only 5% of all veterans are between the ages of 18 and 30, and less than 23% are between 31 and 50)
  • Many of these veterans have served in World War II, the Korean War, Cold War, Vietnam War, Grenada, Panama, Lebanon, Persian Gulf War, Afghanistan and Iraq (OEF/OIF)
  • About 1.4 million other veterans, meanwhile, are considered at risk of homelessness due to poverty, lack of support networks, and dismal living conditions in overcrowded or substandard housing.
  • The VA has vowed to end veteran homelessness by 2015

 

Many of these veterans are homeless as a result of living with the residual effects of combat related conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), traumatic brain injury (TBI) and military sexual assault (MSA.) Many have become despondent and frustrated with the often times time consuming, bureaucratic paperwork process and have simply given up.

What Can Employers Do?

As many employers are now aggressively reaching out to hire veterans, it is important that employers and collegiate institutions adopt proactive programs and policies that will help mitigate stigma, reduce the barriers that prevent personal disclosure and create sensitive/supportive environments for veterans and their families. The following are proactive suggestions that will help veteran employees who may be homeless or are facing the possibility of becoming homeless.

  • Publicize (via newsletters, posters, etc.) the VA’s National Call Center for Homeless Veterans at 1-877-4AID-VET (1-877-424-3838.) Callers will speak with a trained VA responder. The hotline and online chat are free and neither VA registration nor enrollment in VA healthcare is required to use either service
  • Provide focus groups and extend a conversational agenda to address the subject. The focus groups for women, veterans and family members. Sessions should be followed up with action items towards employee suggestions that will be addressed within a finite amount of time as an organizational priority
  • Provide an anonymous assessment to be followed up with strategic sensitivity training. This will provide a forum for employee to speak freely without the threat of their personal circumstances becoming exposed. The training should raise understanding and cultural competency, along with communicating a message that effectively mitigates the issue of stigma
  • Establish a mentor program that helps transitioning veterans in need succeed towards their social and career goals. The mentors should be trained to listen and address issues related to homelessness, family crisis and substance abuse
  • Employing veteran spouses and family members also represents a methodology towards maintaining the focus and attention of recently hired veterans. When spouses/partners and family members are engaged and invested with the organization, there is less of a propensity for attrition and the situation can actually become more of a cohesive bonding experience for couples
  • Provide financial counseling as a benefit to employees
  • Encourage managers and supervisors to volunteer at homeless centers and include participation in socially active programs as financial incentives
  • Sponsor speakers on the topic for brown-bag lunch programs
  • Provide a public billboard for employees to post housing needs and available homes for sale or rent. In many cases, employees may be more open to rent to co-workers in need of housing than complete strangers

 

The VA also offers other Specific Programs for Homeless Veterans:

  • VA’s Compensated Work Therapy (CWT) is comprised of three unique programs which assist homeless Veterans in returning to competitive employment: Sheltered Workshop, Transitional Work, and Supported Employment. Veterans in CWT are paid at least the federal or state minimum wage, whichever is the higher
  • The Homeless Veteran Supported Employment Program (HVSEP) provides vocational assistance, job development and placement, and ongoing supports to improve employment outcomes among homeless Veterans and Veterans at-risk of homelessness. Formerly homeless Veterans who have been trained as Vocational Rehabilitation Specialists (VRSs) provide these services
  • The Homeless Providers Grant and Per Diem Program provides grants and per diem payments (as funding is available) to help public and nonprofit organizations establish and operate supportive housing and service centers for homeless Veterans
  • HUD-VA Supportive Housing (VASH) Program is a joint effort between the Department of Housing and Urban Development and VA. HUD allocated nearly 38,000 "Housing Choice" Section 8 vouchers across the country. These vouchers allow Veterans and their families to live in market rate rental units while VA provides case management services. A housing subsidy is paid to the landlord on behalf of the participating Veteran. The Veteran then pays the difference between the actual rent charged by the landlord and the amount subsidized by the program
  • The Acquired Property Sales for Homeless Providers Program makes all VA foreclosed properties available for sale to homeless provider organizations—at a 20 to 50 percent discount—to shelter homeless Veterans
  • The Supportive Services for Veteran Families (SSVF) Program provides grants and technical assistance to community-based, nonprofit organizations to help Veterans and their families stay in their homes

 

Homelessness among veterans or others is and should be considered an unnecessary plague in the one the wealthiest/resourceful countries on earth. Our collective American society should consider it a priority to (as the previously mentioned mural artist suggest) shed light on the issue of homelessness, break down the stigma and bring people together. My advice to anyone is: if the situation presents itself, do not hesitate to help a person in need - every effort counts and your help can save lives.

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Ed Crenshaw is a US Navy veteran, diversity practitioner, disability subject matter expert and creator of the innovative “Preparing Employers to Reintegrate Combat Exposed Veterans with Disabilities” (P.E.R.C.E.V.D.) diversity training program. He is also the author of the books, “The P.E.R.C.E.V.D. Principles” and “The Employers Guide to Understanding Hidden Conditions Related to Suicide.” As a well-renown professional speaker, Ed is a passionate champion and respected advocate for people with disabilities.