A group of advocates for veterans and veterans housing discuss local models for helping homeless veterans on Friday. (Aaron Sanderford/Nebraska Examiner)
OMAHA — A dozen advocates for veterans and veterans’ services met on Veterans Day weekend with a Nebraska congressman and a U.S. senator from Kansas, discussing how to boost and replicate a local model for housing homeless veterans.
U.S. Rep. Don Bacon, R-Neb., and U.S. Sen. Roger Marshall, R-Kan., headlined a Friday discussion on how local nonprofit and government agencies address affordable housing needs and the mental health services crunch. They also heard more help is needed.
The roundtable discussion took place at Victory Apartments, a veterans housing facility in South Omaha. Tom York, property manager at the apartments complex, described how veterans can benefit from having access to one another and from wraparound services, including VA social services and on-site mental health care.
Wraparound services on-site
Victory Apartments offers those services to the residents of up to 150 apartments at the Omaha facility and at a similar 70-apartment complex on the VA campus in Lincoln. But the demand for such services outweighs the availability, York and others said.
Brandy Wallar of New Visions Homeless Services in Council Bluffs, which helps homeless veterans find immediate and transitional housing, said more than 120 veterans combined without homes need shelter each night in Lincoln, Omaha and the Bluffs.
She said her group offers 26 housing units in western Iowa, doubling up veterans in each unit when possible.
George Achola of Burlington Capital, who formerly worked with the Omaha Housing Authority, pressed Bacon and Marshall to bolster tax credits for building low-income housing. He said the credits have not kept up with building costs or the need.
Help for veterans
Ron Hernandez of Moving Veterans Forward, which provides peer counseling and furniture donations, described his group’s work to help ensure that homeless veterans transitioning to their own living space have free access to simple things like pots and pans.
Jay Miralles, who co-founded the 50-Mile March, which raises money for veteran services, shared his story of homelessness and said how important it was to be around people who knew what he had been through and knew it was OK to seek help.
His group is working to build a 22-unit tiny house community in suburban Sarpy County for veterans. Werner Enterprises is helping train residents for better jobs.
“You asked what does it look like when they are homeless,” Miralles said. “They look like me. They’re all one paycheck away from homelessness, one divorce. If we don’t follow up (with newly housed veterans), people get hurt and they die.”
Rent voucher problems
Several participants mentioned difficulties since the pandemic of getting landlords to accept Section 8 vouchers to pay for veterans’ housing. They say an increase in corporate landlords has led to fewer people willing to welcome anybody needing help.
York said Victory Apartments has a waiting list. He said it works with shelters and the VA to identify veterans in need of help. He and others said building more housing is only half the answer. On-site services help homeless veterans succeed, he said.
Many are dealing with mental health and substance abuse issues, he said. He credited teamwork with the Veterans of Foreign Wars, the American Legion, local churches, charities, foundations, donors and more who understand the value of helping veterans.
“Having all those supportive services here helps us just get right on the issue and try to calm the storm with that person and figure things out with them,” he said.
Bacon has proposed legislation that would double the amount of financial help veterans can receive for qualifying home repairs and another proposal aimed at creating grants for peer counseling and similar peer-support organizations. He invited Marshall to Omaha, in part, to lobby for his support. The two had served together previously in the House.
Bacon said he remains proud of the Omaha-area model of public-private partnerships to address problems such as veteran homelessness.
“I’m proud of the whole team,” Bacon said. “What you see is, our community is generous. But you also see people stepping in and filling in the gaps. There’s something special here.”
Marshall said he was grateful to learn about constructive ideas.
Said Marshall: “I think the peer counselors are more valuable than all the Ph.D. people. … It’s people who have walked that mile before. That’s certainly part of the magic juju that’s happening here.”
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