“I just wish we had the magic wand.” Hundreds of Ohio veterans face obstacles to stable housing

There are an estimated 633 homeless veterans in Ohio, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development 2022 annual homeless assessment report.

By: - October 17, 2023 5:00 am

A homeless veteran sleeps in a tent. (Photo by Sandy Huffaker/Getty Images)

The Veterans Affairs’ national call center for homeless veterans is 877-424-3838. 

After fighting to serve and protect our country, hundreds of veterans are homeless in Ohio.

There are an estimated 633 homeless veterans in Ohio, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development 2022 annual homeless assessment report.

“There should be no homeless veterans in our state,” said state Rep. Adam Miller, D-Columbus. “There’s so many veterans who answered the call to duty. Many were drafted.” 

Ohio has 729,645 veterans, according to the United States Department of Veterans Affairs. Only California, Florida, New York, Pennsylvania and Texas have more veterans. 

According to the same HUD report, 33,129 veterans experienced homelessness in the U.S. in 2022 — approximately 7% of all adults experiencing homelessness. 59% of homeless veterans were staying in sheltered locations, according to the HUD report. 

But it’s hard to pinpoint the exact number of homeless veterans.

(Getty Images)

Some homeless veterans are unsheltered and could be couch-surfing, staying in motels or living in homeless camps instead of going to shelters, so they aren’t being counted.

“It’s one of those things that I just wish we had the magic wand,” said Ralph Veppert, an Army Reserve ambassador. 

The VA has housed about 30,700 veterans and engaged with 28,135 unsheltered veterans so far this year, as of August, said Shawn Liu, the VA’s director of communications of the homeless program.

Of the veterans they housed, 972 have returned to homelessness, but 908 have been either re-housed or placed back on a path to finding housing, he said. 

“The words veteran and homeless shouldn’t even be in the same sentence together,” Lui said. “It’s our nation’s duty to make sure that all of these veterans who have served our country with honor and courage have a safe place to call home.”

Obstacles to housing 

A multitude of factors can lead to veterans facing housing insecurity. 

They might have a tough time transitioning back to civilian life and have difficulty finding and keeping a job, creating financial problems. A lot of veterans are dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder and some turn to drugs and alcohol to self-medicate. 

Some other issues veterans face could be a criminal background or evictions that pop up when they fill out a rental application. 

One of the biggest challenges to housing homeless veterans is the lack of affordable housing, Liu said.

“We don’t have a good stock of affordable housing,” said Carrie McNamee, program director at Washington-Morgan Community Action. “It’s older housing. We don’t have a lot of rental housing and some of it is expensive, so it’s just hard to find a good, nice, affordable place to live.” 

Ohio had 3,314 emergency shelter beds last year and only 792 of them were in the Appalachian counties.

“Most of our counties don’t even have homeless shelters,” McNamee said.

Since there aren’t many homeless shelters, Washington-Morgan Community Action doesn’t have the chance to go to shelters and ask if anyone is a veteran. 

“We really have to find them or they have to find us,” McNamee said. 

And some veterans simply don’t want the help or are suspicious of aid. 

“A lot of them don’t want to get off the street,” Veppert said. “If they are self medicating, they’re not sure if they want to get off of that.”

Legislation

Rep. Adam Miller, D-Columbus

During the last General Assembly, state rep. Adam Miller introduced a bill with state rep. Jennifer Gross, R-West Chester, that would have made sure no veteran in Ohio was involuntarily homeless by providing nightly vouchers, funding for shelters and for monthly apartment rentals. 

However, the bill, dubbed the Safe Shelter Initiative Program, was killed.

But Miller introduced a bill over the summer with state Rep. Gail Pavliga, R-Portage County, that would create a dedicated 988 fund.

988 is a national lifeline for people in crisis and considering suicide, and under House Bill 231, the lifeline would coordinate with the Veterans Crisis Line. 

“That gives us some real time data on where our folks at risk are and how many identify as a veteran or military family and where they are, so we can get after that problem and support them,” Miller said. 

Supportive Services for Veteran Families

All 88 counties in Ohio have a Veterans Service Commission that helps veterans file claims with the VA and get transportation to medical appointments.

The VA also has a program called Supportive Services for Veteran Families that gives funds to community nonprofit organizations, such as the Washington-Morgan Community Action, to give services to veterans. The SSVF program helps provide wraparound services to low-income veterans such as rental assistance, transportation, car repairs, childcare and help finding employment.

“The goal is to end veterans being homeless,” McNamee said. 

The Washington-Morgan Community Action, which serves 15 counties, has formed partnerships with the VA, medical hospitals, American Legion posts and Veterans of Foreign Wars posts that can refer veterans to them.

Sub Zero Mission 

Sub Zero Mission gives warming items such as coats, hats, gloves, boots and sleeping bags directly to the homeless — with a focus on homeless veterans. 

Trained volunteers donning blue coats go on missions where the homeless people are, which often means going to homeless camps or into the woods where they will announce themselves upon arrival and distribute warming items to people who are interested.

“We leave it up to them to come out and approach us,” said Nick Ajdinovich, Sub Zero’s event staffing and training coordinator. “We try not to invade their home. We let them determine the level of support that they want.”

Sub Zero, which is located in Painesville and started more than a decade ago, will ask the homeless people they encounter on their missions if they are a veteran. If they are, they try to collect their information, get it verified through the VA and see what benefits they are entitled to. 

They also try to connect the veterans with temporary housing and see if they would be interested in Sub Zero’s Veteran Empowerment Program to get them lined up with the services they might need. Two veterans recently successfully completed the program.

“We’ve had some success, obviously, we want to have more, but to get someone through our program you’re looking sometimes 12 to 18 months before they’re really self sufficient,” Ajdinovich said. 

This year’s mission will start on Nov. 28 and will go through mid-March. Sub Zero has missions scheduled in about 40 cities and six states including Akron; Cincinnati; Toledo; Chicago; Buffalo, New York; Indianapolis, Indiana; Erie, Pennsylvania; and Detroit, Michigan. 

Sub Zero does occasionally come across the same people year after year. 

“Some of the homeless don’t want to be off the streets,” Ajdinovich said. “That’s the lifestyle that they’ve chosen. Then what we try to do is just make sure … they have the items that they need so they don’t freeze to death.” 

Mission Warmth

A homeless man covers himself from the cold while walking down a sidewalk. Photo by J.D. Pooley/Getty Images

Sub Zero’s Columbus mission inspired Mission Warmth — a Columbus nonprofit which started providing warming items to the homeless in central Ohio last year. 

They went on six mission trips from December through March on Friday nights that helped more than 300 people. 8% of those they helped were veterans, said co-founder and CEO Greg Eckert, a retired Navy veteran. 

“Our purpose is to reduce the freezing and injury caused by extreme cold weather for all the homeless, but with a specific focus on veterans,” he said. 

Their first mission is scheduled for Dec. 15 and they plan on doing 12 missions this year. 

Similar to Sub Zero, Mission Warmth goes where the unsheltered homeless are. They announces themselves when they arrive at a homeless camp and people who want help can come forward to receive hats, coats, sleeping bags,  socks, tents and hand warmers.

“No one should freeze to death,” Eckert said. “And that’s why we’re out there to prevent that from happening. … A couple of them …  if they didn’t have the wherewithal or somebody to help them … they would just die of hypothermia and it would just be a matter of time.”

Follow OCJ Reporter Megan Henry on Twitter.

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Megan Henry
Megan Henry

Megan Henry is a reporter for the Ohio Capital Journal and has spent the past five years reporting in Ohio on various topics including education, healthcare, business and crime. She previously worked at The Columbus Dispatch, part of the USA Today Network.

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