As we wrote about in our women veterans cover story last month, accessing helpful resources isn't as easy for veterans as it may seem. Even when veterans are actively seeking help, it's not always obvious where to look. Kelly Crabtree, who is in the Army National Guard, says that because neither she nor her husband Josh, who is also in the Guard, are currently on active duty, she was passed from help line to help line before someone recommended calling the Volunteers of America while they were unable to receive their military wages during the government shut down in October.
"People need to know about these programs. I had no idea! I had to call 40 people before I even found out about VOA," Kelly says.
Volunteers of America is a nonprofit that provides services not only to veterans, but also to the homeless, at-risk youth, and people returning to civilian life after serving time in prison, among other groups. VOA programs like the Homeless Veterans Reintegration Project has been around for nearly a decade, but as of Oct. 1, it began a new program specifically for women veterans. The Homeless Female Veterans and Veterans with Families (HFVVWF) program is based on a grant from the federal Department of Labor, and offers supportive services to women veterans whether or not they have children. Kelly Crabtree accessed this service when her family was on the brink of losing their apartment, cars, and jobs about a month ago.
During the government shut down in October, the Crabtrees' National Guard paychecks were halted. Then Kelly lost her job. Though Josh works at Kingston Academy (formerly Camelot), the family was facing several tough decisions without their regular military checks. If they were unable to stay in their apartment and continue to pay off their cars, they were looking at moving to Chattanooga to live with Josh's mother. Josh says it was a blow to his pride.
"I've been deployed, but I can't pay rent? It's a real gut check, and it sucks," he says.
Then Kelly got in touch with VOA, and found out she was eligible for assistance through the HFVVWF program. With the help of the services provided, the Crabtrees were able to get their rent and utilities paid so that they were able to stay in their home. They've also been given a gift card to cover gas, Kelly got assistance in her job search, and will receive help in putting together clothes for interviews. She'll start a temporary job next month. HFVVWF can also provide bus passes, minor car repairs, child care assistance, and connections to community resources to aid in stabilization.
Another thing that might keep veterans from seeking help from this program is the definition of "veteran." Kelly Crabtree was sure she wouldn't be eligible for the HFVVWF program since she'd never been deployed. Some veterans services require their clients to have served in combat.
"When [someone] referred me, I was like, 'This isn't going to work because I don't have that combat badge,'" Kelly says.
But VOA's definition of "veteran," says HFVVWF program support specialist Diane Kaczmarczyk, is simple: the person must have any discharge category other than "dishonorable," and he or she must have been on active duty for one day.
And once someone has enrolled in the program, case managers at VOA keep in close touch, and even lend an ear when things get stressful.
"I've called Diane plenty of times just [to say] 'I need to talk!'" she says.
Carla Kimble, who is in charge of the VOA program Supportive Services for Veterans with Families, and often works in conjunction with the HFVVWF program, says the instability veterans may face with their housing and job situations just adds to their stress levels.
The National Alliance to End Homelessness estimates that there are about 1,600 veterans who sleep on the streets each night in Tennessee, and VOA cites data from the Homeless Management Information System and the American Community Survey that shows just under 10 percent of homeless veterans in shelters across the U.S. are women. In the last five months, the SSVF program served 102 veterans, Kimble says. That's a pretty good number, considering HFVVWF, SSVF, and many other veterans service programs like them rely mainly on word-of-mouth to gain new clients.
TyErika Gilbert is an outreach worker for HFVVWF. She found the job through the SSVF program, which her husband (who is a veteran) was able to access for support.
Gilbert and her husband were told by her husband's godfather about the Veterans Stand Down, a resource fair that connected veterans to job leads, and offered clothing and hygiene supplies for homeless veterans, which was held in Johnson City in October. It was there that they heard about SSVF, and were connected with services to maintain their housing.
"We heard about a Veterans Stand Down, and we went because of word of mouth. We had been in town just two weeks and were feeling overwhelmed. And that one person said 'make sure you go to the Veterans Stand Down. There's going to be a lot of help,'" Gilbert says.
But first the veterans themselves have to ask for help. And, as Josh Crabtree says, it's not an easy thing to do.
"I would never ask for help. Without my wife...we'd probably be in a tough spot," he admits.
Gilbert agrees, saying "My husband is very prideful, and we would've never gone to that Stand Down if his godfather hadn't called us three times that day."
The VOA employees emphasize that the program is meant to be a helping hand, or a push toward economic viability for women and families--not a hand out.
"It's really more of a helping hand than a handout," Josh Crabtree says.
"We can't promise them a job, but if they do the work and we encourage them with it, then once we get them inside the door of an employer, we're hoping they'll sell themselves," Kaczmarczyk explains.
When asked if they see a near future of financial independence, both Crabtrees emphatically say, "Yes."
To qualify for services from the Homeless Female Veterans and Veterans with Families grant program, you must:
-Be literally homeless, imminently homeless (served with an eviction notice), or "couch homeless" (living with friends or family)
-Be a female veteran or a male veteran with dependent children under 18 years old
-Have served at least one day of active duty service that can be verified by a DD 214, VA medical card, or retiree card
-Discharged with anything of than a "dishonorable" discharge
-Be either unemployed or under-employed
To qualify for assistance from the Supportive Services for Veteran families, you must:
-Be a member of a veterans family
-Have very low income (cannot exceed 50 percent of area median income)
-Occupy permanent housing
For more info on the services provided by the Homeless Female Veterans and Veterans with Families program, call (865) 524-3926 ext. 235. And if you'd like more info on the Supportive Services for Veteran Families program, call (865) 951-0682.