And as they roam through the urban streets and back woods of Orange, Osceola, Lake and Seminole counties, they hope every time to find people whose lives have been shattered, and who seemingly have been forgotten and left behind by the rest of society.
What makes it seem doubly tragic is that the people they’re searching for are homeless veterans, men and women who were once heroes in the overseas conflicts that the nation and its government called on them to fight for. Since coming back to Central Florida, their lives have fallen apart, spiraled out of control by everything from addiction and mental illness to health problems and critical financial losses.
They’re out there, said Ken Mueller, and it’s a part of his mission to find them.
“We target those who are chronically homeless, and work with them to meet some of the requirements of the housing programs available to us,” said Mueller. “Usually what we’re looking for is someone who has been homeless for a while, or had multiple episodes of homelessness over a three year period. That’s who we’re targeting. They are our most vulnerable veterans on the street and in the woods.”
Mueller is the program manager of health care for homeless veterans at the Orlando VA Medical Center.
His efforts to find and assist homeless veterans got a boost last week when his agency, in partnership with the Orlando Housing Authority, received 75 vouchers valued at more than $518,000 from the U.S. Housing and Urban Development’s Veterans’ Affairs Supportive Housing Program.
The money, awarded on April 3, is going to be used to provide permanent housing and case management for homeless veterans in the four counties.
“The vouchers are a collaboration between the VA, HUD and the local housing authorities,” Mueller said. “The vouchers themselves actually went to the local housing authorities, including here at the Orlando Housing Authority. They are required to work with us on those areas designated for homeless veterans, so we work with the local Orlando Housing Authority and identify the veterans who are eligible.”
Sadly, that could be a significant number. The 2011 Point-In-Time count, conducted by the U.S. Department of Commerce, indicated a total of 690 homeless veterans in Orange, Osceola, and Seminole counties alone. The Homelessness Housing and Assistance Act, passed by Congress, requires each county in the nation to conduct an Annual Point In Time Count of sheltered and unsheltered homeless persons, in accordance with the requirements of HUD. The Department of Commerce provides survey forms for the counties and local agencies to use for their counts.
The HUD vouchers are designed to help local VA centers and housing agencies find permanent shelter for homeless veterans.
“These vouchers are helping to identify those who are truly the most vulnerable, and who could use this resource,” Mueller said. “We’re finding them, but with all the help we can get, we need to find more of them so we can fully utilize these resources.”
VA medical centers around the nation work closely with homeless veterans and refer them to public housing agencies for further assistance — including use of these vouchers which cover rental assistance and, locally, the comprehensive case management provided by the Orlando VA Medical Center’s staff.
“We have some outreach we do directly,” Mueller said. “We go out to various homeless shelters, and in addition to that, we also collaborate with a lot of community partners and other groups that do outreach to the homeless community. They could be identified and sent our way as well. It’s really through multiple efforts.”
Although the vouchers just got awarded to the city this month, this is not a new initiative, Mueller said.
”This program has actually been going on for a while,” he said. “We do have several veterans in the program now who have come to the program from the streets, and we’ve been able to help them maintain housing in the community. We also do long term intensive care management with them, and have a case manager working with them.”
The program has truly helped change the lives of some of these veterans, who otherwise had nowhere to turn, Mueller said.
“It’s been beneficial,” he said. “We also make sure they are comfortable working with the other things that go with independent housing, that the rest of us may take for granted. We also look at emergency housing, too, so we can assist people until we can get them into these programs.”
Efforts to assist homeless veterans have become a top concern for the Veterans Administration nationally, he added.
“It’s a priority for the VA right now, and identifying homeless veterans is one of the main areas that they’re focusing resources on now,” Mueller said.
The VA’s Webpage provides more information on the ongoing efforts to help homeless veterans. To learn more, log on to www.va.gov/homeless.
To learn more about homeless veterans services at the Orlando VA, call 321-397-6885. For more information on the Orlando VA Medical Center, go to http://www.orlando.va.gov.