Number of homeless veterans declines across Pittsburgh region
November 10, 2015 12:00 AM
Veteran Leslie Thompson hugs Lauren Broyles, one of the VA employees who helped him with his problems, and motions to Melissa Wieland, a Ph.D. researcher, as he discusses his difficulties.
Bill Metzger, a veteran who came to the Veterans Affairs Pittsburgh Healthcare System facility last week for an eye exam, looks at photography by homeless veterans during an event at the center. Mr. Metzger, who served in the Navy from 1964-67, said he feels fortunate he hasn't endured being homeless.
Hope Peterson, who served in the U.S. Coast Guard from 1997 to 2000, and has been homeless for periods of time since then, stands by the photo of her dog Matty that was on display Monday at the VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System lobby as part of a program on the VA’s help for homeless veterans.
By Adam Smeltz / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Five years since Leslie Thompson pulled himself from on-again, off-again destitution, the 57-year-old says cracking the cycle of veteran homelessness has a simple fix.
It begins with calling a help hotline, said Mr. Thompson, who served in the Army, Navy and Marine Corps before his life slipped into uncontrolled chaos. He credits the Veterans Affairs Pittsburgh Healthcare System with helping to rebuild his life, stabilizing him so well that he has since become a trusted adviser to his peers.
“The [homeless] cycle is easy to break. The guys just don’t want to do it. The pride sets in,” said Mr. Thompson of Rankin, who joined several other local veterans Monday to spotlight VA Pittsburgh’s homelessness support and rehabilitation services before Veterans Day. “You’ve got to make the call.”
Nudging veterans in need — both men and women — to contain their pride and ask for help ranks among the biggest challenges as the VA finishes a national push to end veteran homelessness. An estimated 50,000 veterans nationwide were homeless by early 2014, down about 33 percent since President Barack Obama’s administration announced the effort in 2009, according to federal statistics.
Trends in Western Pennsylvania also are edging downward. A late-January survey found 214 homeless veterans in Allegheny County, down from 231 at the same time in 2014, said Mary Frances Pilarski, the VA Pittsburgh health care director for homeless veterans.
She said those figures include people in emergency transitional housing programs and longer-term assistance. The number of unsheltered veterans in those statistics fell from 19 to 9.
A VA and county estimate made within the last several weeks put the veteran homeless figure at 85 in the county, not including everyone in transitional housing programs, but numbers fluctuate day to day. Overall homeless rates and estimates can vary widely, due in part to seasonal shifts and variable accounting methods.
“Sometimes veterans don’t reach out and aren’t ready to reach out because of illness,” such as post-traumatic stress disorder, Ms. Pilarski said.
She said the numbers reflect persistent declines since 2010. A multi-agency campaign called the Pittsburgh Rapid Results Veterans’ Homeless Boot Camp, which includes the VA and county authorities, has been working since last year to move all homeless veterans from streets in the county by Dec. 31.
That coalition provided 339 homeless veterans with permanent housing by July, said county spokeswoman Amie Downs.
Ms. Pilarski said collaborations across the community have helped subdue the problem, emphasizing public outreach that can build the trust of troubled veterans. VA offerings feature a full complement of mental health, vocational and other support programs meant to steady homeless veterans and those wobbling on the brink.
“Once you get down so low, you have two choices. It’s either life or death,” said Edward Schwirian, 58, of the Hill District, a former Army medic. He said the VA helped him land housing within a couple of days when he was losing his apartment and awash in anxiety.
He has since struck a healthy life balance and works in food services for UPMC, Mr. Schwirian said. He is among 20 local veterans who have faced homelessness or housing instability and shared their thoughts for a VA study and public art project this year.
About three dozen of their photographs and companion reflections on health, spirituality and other personal themes appear through Wednesday in the VA Pittsburgh’s Oakland lobby, part of an awareness campaign coinciding with Veterans Day observances that day. Researchers hope the study can influence and draw attention to future care, said Lauren Broyles, a research health scientist at the VA Center for Health Equity Research and Promotion.
“There’s a lot of resilience and hope that the photographs convey,” she said.
Adam Smeltz: email@example.com, 412-263-2625 or on Twitter @asmeltz.
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