Sadly, this is the last day of my internship here at Friendship Place. I could go on and on about what an amazing experience it has been, but that would take forever. This internship has opened my eyes to the issue of homelessness among veterans and my understanding of homelessness has definitely changed since I have been here.
I first became interested in homelessness at an involvement fair at my school. I joined a club, and we came to DC for spring break to work with the homeless. That was my first real exposure to the issue, because I come from a small town where homelessness is hidden from view. Here in the city it is in plain sight. There are homeless people who spend their days on the streets with people constantly walking by.
I came to Friendship Place with a need to help people, but little to no knowledge about homelessness or even veterans. When I first got here people would ask me what I hoped to learn or gain from my internship and I didn’t really know what to say because I was a blank slate on the topic.
Since then I have been exposed to an incredible injustice that is happening in our country. I’m sure most would agree that shelter is a basic human need, and I believe it should be a right. Men and women who fight for our country and our freedom should not be denied basic needs like shelter. I have been here for ten weeks, but I think if I were here for ten years I still wouldn’t understand how we can let our veterans fall through the cracks like that. I have also seen the amazing efforts that are being put towards ending homelessness, and I can see that people are actively making a difference.
I have to go back to school now, but this internship has seriously made me think about what I want to do with my life after I graduate. I will never fully understand the struggles of homelessness, but I do feel a strong need to make a difference. I would like to work with a nonprofit organization after I graduate because I have seen the amazing things they can do for a community.
I would do this internship all over again; it has been one of the best summers of my life. I am proud to be able to say that I have worked with Friendship Place, and I hope that I have helped make a difference. Their Veterans First program helps so many veterans and their families access services they need. I would definitely encourage anyone else to get involved at Friendship Place; it has certainly been good for me.
During my internship I have learned a lot about how and why veterans become homeless. I have also learned that there is not a lot being done in the way of prevention. When soldiers join the military, they go through intensive training and preparation, but there is little to no preparation for when they return to the Unites States. There are programs in place to help veterans after they have fallen into poverty and homelessness, but there are no programs to prevent it. I believe that the in order to fix the problem of homelessness among veterans, we need to keep it from happening in the first place.
Getting a job can be hard for any veteran because upon returning home, most veterans find that they have little to no applicable skills that they can use to get a job as a civilian. Some join the military straight out of high school, and those individuals have no relevant work experience on their resume. A job training program for recently returned veterans would make all the difference in the world. It would make veterans more hirable and therefore less likely to fall into poverty.
Another major cause of homelessness is Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Veterans suffering from PTSD may find it difficult to acclimate back into civilian life. They sometimes have a sense of paranoia that can make it difficult to maintain a career, housing, or personal relationships. There are programs that are available to veterans that help treat PTSD, but they are not enough. A homeless veteran on the streets is typically not undergoing treatment and therapy, and that is a problem. PTSD is a serious disorder that makes it hard to function, and no veteran should be forced to live with it, especially on the streets where anything can happen to trigger memories of the traumas of war. There needs to be more intensive programs available to veterans who are at risk of becoming homeless.
Female veterans are more likely to become homeless than male veterans, and there may be a correlation between homelessness and Military Sexual Trauma (MST). There is an incredible moving documentary out called The Invisible War that addresses the issue of MST and the specific ways female veterans are affected by it. A female veteran is more likely to be raped by a fellow soldier than to be killed by enemy fire, and there is very little being done about it. There are even some homeless women dealing with both MST and PTSD – these women should never have become homeless in the first place.
In order to end veteran homelessness, we need to catch it before it happens. Preventing an epidemic is a lot easier than treating one, and by giving soldiers the assistance they need as soon as – if not before – they get home we could keep many of them off the streets.
Next week is my last week here at Friendship Place. This has been an amazing learning experience for me; I came here with very little knowledge about homelessness and almost none about homelessness among veterans. With my internship drawing to a close, I would like to take a moment to reflect on just a few of the things I have learned so far about the issue.
Veteran homelessness is a complex problem. There are a variety of reasons that veterans can become homeless. Many veterans suffer from physical or psychological problems (like Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) that can make it hard to assimilate back into civilian life. There are so many other factors that can put a veteran on the streets. Some do not have much support from family and friends, or they may lack applicable skills, which can make it difficult to find a job. These are just a few examples of risk factors; there are many more.
Female veterans are more at risk of becoming homeless than the general population. A higher percentage of veterans are homeless than anyone else, and while most veterans are men, women veterans are even more likely to become homeless.
Some shelters and service providers can only offer services to veterans with anything but a dishonorable discharge. Therefore, one might think that a priority for a homeless veteran who was released from the military under dishonorable conditions would be to change the status of their discharge. However, it can take around two years to get a discharge upgrade. There are organizations out there that can provide discharge upgrade services, but it can be discouraging for a veteran who is on the streets and needs more immediate assistance.
Despite all the negative things I have come to learn, it is also apparent that things are starting to look up. Veteran homelessness is on the decline. Efforts are being made to end homelessness among veterans, and they are starting to pay off. If the numbers continue to drop, then hopefully in a few more years no veteran will have to spend their nights on the streets.
Outreach is not as easy as it sounds, especially when you don’t have an air conditioned car (or any car at all): my heart breaks for all the homeless people who spend most of their time outdoors. Marc McCue and I start our outreach days by creating a map of the organizations we planned to visit, and then we headed out into the heat (which was in the upper 90s) and followed our map all day. I cannot imagine doing this without a phone with a GPS or money to stop and get a cold drink.
Our goal for doing outreach is to spread the word about the new Supportive Services for Veteran Families (SSVF) grant that Friendship Place has received. We travel to DC organizations that provide shelter, job training, food, or any other place that a homeless or at-risk veteran might go for help. Sometimes the organizations are closed when we get there, and sometimes they are not interested or already know everything we have to say. But most of the time, organizations are extremely receptive to us.
One organization in particular stands out in my mind. I walked into the office of Thrive DC, and at first they looked confused to see me there. After I explained myself and my organization they offered me a seat (I had just walked a half a mile in 95 degrees, so I probably looked like I needed to sit down). They were excited to hear about the SSVF grant, and they were also excited to see young people showing an interest in the issue of homelessness. We exchanged information, and they invited us to a staff meeting so we could talk more about Friendship Place and SSVF.
It feels good to know that we are getting the word out, and that is hopefully helping veterans. We try to be as thorough as possible; if we walk by a place that looks like it might offer homeless services we always check it out. We always say “if you come across a homeless veteran, please let us know”. Hopefully our outreach efforts are a big enough step towards getting veterans out of this heat and into a new home.
I am exactly halfway through my internship today. I do not want to think about the fact that from now on I will have more time behind me than I have to look forward to. This is a good in-between stage in my internship to reflect on what I have learned and to look forward to what I hope to learn; I have learned a lot and there is still so much to learn.
I have had so many different experiences during the past five weeks that when I reflect on what I have learned, I don’t even know where to begin. There are so many aspects of homelessness. Before working here, I just thought about housing, job training, and psychological care. I now know that there is so much more than that. There are rules, laws, restrictions, and policies that must be adhered to.
One thing I was not expecting was how many different organizations exist that are centered around homelessness. For some reason I thought that there would be a more unified force fighting against homelessness. All of the different organizations are good at what they do, but there are just so many of them. If I were homeless, I wouldn’t even know where to begin.
I also learned some of what goes into organizing an event, but I will include that in my list of things I look forward to learning. The reason for that is that none of my events have actually happened yet. I have leads, but I have not nailed down a community walk yet. There is a No Wrong Doors training that is coming up in two weeks, and all is going well with that so far. I look forward to seeing the results of all the planning going into these events! I am also looking forward to seeing where my outreach takes me. I have been to so many organizations for meetings, I can’t imagine how many more doors will be opened.
I do not want my internship to be over, and the fact that it is halfway over is disheartening, but I still have so much to look forward to. I cannot wait for the next five weeks, and at the same time, I don’t want them to come because they will be over as quickly as the last five weeks have flown by.
I was walking down the sidewalk on the 3rd of July when a loud sound startled me. For a minute I honestly thought it was gunfire, until I remembered that Independence Day was the next day, and someone was setting off fireworks early. It made me think about all the veterans who suffer from PTSD ― post traumatic stress disorder. If a firework scared me that much, I cannot imagine how I would have felt if I immediately connected that sound to real memories of gunfire and explosions.
Is it really fair that the people who fought for our country should be stressed on the 4th of July? I was sitting out on the mall with my friends enjoying a show while so many veterans throughout the city may have been having adrenaline rushes and panicking as the loud noises reminded them of combat. It must be so much worse for homeless veterans who have nowhere to go to buffer the noise.
Many veterans suffer from PTSD. As I continue working at Friendship Place, I will keep this in mind. I hope that the outreach I will be doing will help homeless veterans find a place to live and the help they need for dealing with PTSD. No one should have to suffer on the 4th of July.