BLACK HILLS — At times, veterans will go to the Black Hills Healthcare System Fort Meade VA Medical Center near Sturgis for treatment or counseling, and some are also in need of a meal.
“If a veteran shows up here and is in need of a meal, we can give them a certificate and they go over and get a meal at the main hospital,” Bill Fahrenbruck, healthcare for homeless veterans coordinator, said.
The number of meals issued is not tracked, but he knows the service is utilized.
“One man and his wife would come in once a day and get four meals, a lunch, and a dinner to go,” Fahrenbruck said.
Proper nourishment is important to the overall health of the veteran.
“Poor nutrition can affect many facets of health and wellbeing. Without the proper nutrients, their immune system is weakened and they are not prepared to fight or heal from illness or injury,” said Marni Whalen, VA Black Hills Health Care System MOVE! program coordinator. “A good example of this is wound healing. Wound healing takes longer if their diet is of poor quality.”
Hunger is part of a larger issue facing veterans: homelessness. In 2009, the White House and the Department of Veterans Affairs announced the goal to end homelessness among veterans, and the efforts seem to be paying off. A point-in-time count, or “snapshot” of homelessness, conducted in 2015, indicated a decrease in homeless veterans by 36 percent.
Since that directive seven years ago, Fahrenbruck has heard about every story imaginable.
“When I became a therapist, I always said that was a population I didn’t want to work with because I thought it (homelessness) was a choice,” Fahrenbruck said. “What I’ve learned is that it is not a choice in many occasions.”
He told of one veteran who was sitting through a substance abuse class. When Fahrenbruck asked the veteran if he understood the diagram drawn on a white board, the veteran told him, “No.” Fahrenbruck explained it again.
Still, the veteran didn’t understand the concept.
“Dude, it’s not rocket science,” Fahrenbruck said sarcastically. “He looked at me square in the eye and said, ‘If it was, I’d understand it.’ So I asked him his story.”
Fahrenbruck said the veteran was an engineer for NASA, and after a shuttle launch, the veteran and his friends went out to have fun. He became intoxicated and got into a fight. The veteran hit the man he was fighting with a pool cue and killed him.
“One bad choice can lead to all of this,” Fahrenbruck said. “He lost his identity. He lost everything when that happened. He turned to substances and became homeless.”
“(The) Homeless population is not different than you or I. They have a bad rap,” Fahrenbruck added.
The VA considers a person homeless if he or she lacks fixed regular housing or primary nighttime residence that is not designed for regular sleeping; lives in a supervised public place, like a privately owned shelter such as the Cornerstone Rescue Mission; or an individual in a place not fit for human habitation, and to combat homelessness among veterans, the VA initiated several programs.
The HUD-VA Supportive Housing (VASH) Program, is a joint effort between the Department of Housing and Urban Development and VA.
“I like to say I don’t give people houses, I give them homes,” Fahrenbruck said. “They are rental houses. As long as they follow the guidelines, they can stay there as long as they want to. We still have the first guy we put on the program in 2009 still in the program.”
The veteran pays one third of their income, and HUD pays the rest, he said. Veterans receive a move-in kit, a queen-size bed, and are surrounded with services for addictive disorders, mental health, PTSD (Post-traumatic Stress Disorder) counseling, budgeting, etc.
Other programs include a grant per diem program, a contract residential bed program, justice outreach, and homeless outreach. All are aimed at curbing homelessness and providing support to the veterans.
The efforts put forth by the dedicated case specialists are paying off.
“In Pennington County, last year there were 44 homeless veterans. Only two were actually on the street,” Fahrenbruck said.
But by no means is the work done.
“Last year, the VA Black Hills served 782 veterans,” Fahrenbruck said. “During the first quarter of this fiscal year, we have served 258 veterans.”
The high number is due to the fact that homeless veterans from all parts of the country are served by the local VA facility and programs.
“I know of veterans who came all the way from Florida to go through our program,” he said.
Some programs are limited such as the grant per diem program. In that program, the veteran can stay up to 24 months.
“After the 24 months, if the veteran is still working the program really well, we can request a waiver for them,” Fahrenbruck said.
He added that veterans can enroll in the programs at any VA facility and that the public can help if they see someone they believe may be homeless.
“If someone sees a homeless person, give us a call,” Fahrenbruck said. “I’ll send someone out to see if they are a veteran. If they are, we’ll do what we can to help them.”
That doesn’t always include finding them a house.
“One veteran refused to go into housing. When the weather got bad, we had guys go out and make sure he had proper blankets and sleeping bag. … Some people aren’t ready for houses,” Fahrenbruck said.
He added that his job is filled with successes stories, like the above-mentioned veteran and former NASA engineer, who became homeless, moved to Montana, “and last I heard, he’s doing good,” Fahrenbruck said. “We get calls from people we’ve helped or treated, and it is uplifting. This is one of the few jobs in the VA I’ve worked that I can see a finished product. I see a success story. We will do anything we can to make that success story happen. One guy said, ‘You saved my life.’ I said, ‘No, I didn’t; you saved your own life.’ As soon as you take credit for the successes, you have to take credit for the failures. We don’t want to have failures. All we can do is guide these veterans and show them the respect and love that they deserve and work with them that way.”