Helping vets out of the woods

By Maureen Smith
Soldiers are trained to live in often brutal conditions, camping or making-do in terrible situations during deployments for their country. What many people don’t know is that some veterans are forced to use those survival skills when they come home. Catholic Charities is using a grant from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to help those low-income vets who are homeless or have unstable housing situations in the Diocese of Jackson. The Supportive Services for Veteran Families (SSVF) program started in February in four offices throughout the state.

“This has been an eye-opening experience,” said Chamon Williams, the program coordinator. “We love the people we encounter and some of these stories are heart-wrenching. These are people who have served our country and now they are living below the poverty level,” she added.

The SSVF seeks out vets and their families who are either homeless or who are “couch surfing,” meaning they are staying with friends and family for short periods of time. The main goal of the program is to get them in a stable housing situation through case management, but Williams said the case workers are doing much more than that.

“We provide utility assistance, help with job location, sometimes we can help with transportation and clothing vouchers,” she explained. Many times, she said, the veterans are not aware of the many programs and resources available to them so SSVF case workers act as connectors to other partners and agencies.

Budgeting is sometimes an issue. One client in Natchez was living in a wooded area near a retail center. He was getting a pension every month but could not seem to make the money stretch. “He was unable to budget his money and save so he could move into permanent housing,” said his case manager, Cynthia Jackson. She was able to help with the deposits for an apartment and utilities and help him learn how to manage his budget. “At the present time, he is in a stable housing situation and is paying his own rent and utilities,” she said. When she went to visit him recently, he offered her a cup of milk as he unloaded groceries. He was all settled in and had clean clothes drying on a clothesline. Jackson said she was touched by the normal domestic scene since he had been homeless just a few short weeks before. “He is very happy and thankful for the assistance he received through the Catholic Charities SSVF program,” Jackson added.

Williams said she has spoken with some clients who have fallen victim to predatory lenders. One man had taken out four different loans from high-interest so-called payday lenders in an attempt to pay off one debt. Case managers worked with him to break the cycle and pay off all the debts to get a clean start.

Another family in the Delta heard about the program on the radio. The veteran, his pregnant wife and their son were living with family, but needed to get a home of their own before their baby was born. “On May 9, two wonderful things happened for this couple. The first being the couple was able to secure housing,” wrote their case worker Melissa Ivory. The second bit of good news is that the husband has secured job training to become an IT specialist. Their baby is due in June.

Kimberle Neal, who works in the Vardaman office, said one of her greatest joys is seeing how her clients thrive when they are empowered to make a positive change. “There’s always a helping hand, but it’s nothing like trying to help yourself first. I must say that it has been a pleasant experience to meet and collaborate with new clients that are seeking help in order to have a better way of life,” she said.

“We wanted to reach an under and unserved population,” Williams explained about why Catholic Charities pursued this grant. “When we started there was one organization working with veterans only in the Jackson area, and it was located in Hattiesburg. There are now five partner organizations throughout the state,” she added. Catholic Charities already had staff in the Delta and the northern part of the state so they knew about the need and knew they could bring the right services to those areas.

Catholic Charities takes advantage of the synergy of its network of services. Recently Williams delivered a load of new clothing donated by Catholic Charities’ thrift store All Things New to clients in the SSVF program. Ivory, who works in Greenwood, was able to use those clothes for some of her clients. “One of my clients was able to find items to wear to church and future interviews. Others took the basics for everyday wear and were extremely happy to have clothing that fit,” said Ivory.

Other case managers can refer their clients to other programs and services to help with other needs they may have. Catholic Charities in Jackson was one of 15 Catholic Charities entities across the nation to get this grant.
SSVF case managers have offices in Jackson, Greenwood, Vardaman and Natchez. Case managers hope to impact 100 families by late fall of this year. To participate in this program or assist call Chamon Williams at Catholic Charities at 601-355-8634 .