As a veterans outreach specialist for Old Pueblo Community Services in Tucson, Arizona, I helped more than 100 homeless veterans find housing last year. The position was the best thing that has ever happened to me because it gives me the capacity to help as many people as possible – and because after serving in the Army, I experienced homelessness myself.
For too many years, I was on the wrong side of the law. I was incarcerated, and when I got out I ended up in a shelter. At the time, that was the best thing that could have happened to me; another veteran staying there helped me get registered with our local Veterans Affairs office. I also attended a stand down, a Labor Department-funded local event that offers a variety of social services for veterans experiencing homelessness. There I met a director of a transitional living program for veterans.
From there, I learned every acronym in the VA and took advantage of them all. I got into the Grant and Per Diem Program, which offered stable transitional housing and case management for my service-connected disability. Although I had never thought about going back to school, I was empowered to apply for VA vocational rehabilitation and was approved for 48 months of educational services. I applied for the HUD-VASH program and was accepted again, giving me access to permanent housing.
Each of these steps changed my life, and made me realize that people cared about me and my future. So I decided I had to give back. I started volunteering, working with other veterans who were just starting to look for a change, and then moved into my full-time position at Old Pueblo Community Services. I also now serve as vice chair for an all-volunteer veteran organization and as an outreach program director for my American Legion Post.
All of these experiences gave me the resources to help people experiencing homelessness in our community. By reaching out to people and connecting them to the services that helped me get back on my feet, we reduced veteran homelessness in Tucson by more than 11 percent last year.
That’s why it was a privilege to host Secretary Tom Perez last week for Tucson’s annual Point-in-Time Count, a one-night count of all sheltered and unsheltered people experiencing homelessness that takes place across the country in January. It’s important for planning how to end homelessness – and for veterans, the Obama administration is aiming to end homelessness in 2015.
During the Tucson count, we met with several of the veterans I work with who have yet to move into stable housing. Their stories made it clear that we need to work harder and dedicate more resources at every level to get to our goal on ending veteran homelessness. This includes focusing on Housing First, like we’re trying to do in Tucson: putting people into permanent affordable housing as quickly as possible and then providing supportive services. We also need to have qualified case managers that can help veterans navigate the system. Without quality case management, I would not be where I am today.
My story is evidence that our efforts to end veteran homelessness can work. Today, I am a taxpayer who makes too much money to qualify for the services that got me off the street. Today, I’m a college graduate who has a bachelor’s degree with honors in engineering. And every day, I’m lucky to have a job changing the lives of veterans like me.
Cliff Wade is a veterans outreach specialist for Old Pueblo Community Services in Tucson, Arizona.
Editor’s note: To learn more about Labor Department resources that support veterans and returning service members, visit www.dol.gov/VETS.