HARRISBURG, Pa. (WHTM) – Almost 40,000 veterans are homeless in the United States, and Pennsylvania ranks 8th in the nation, according to 2016 statistics from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
What’s behind these numbers, and what can you do about it?
“We were scared, and all this popping is going on. Everybody thought they were going to die because when you got limbs falling on top of you, you’re hearing machine shooting over top of you, and you’re hearing that loud crack,” U.S. Army Staff Sgt. E6 (Ret.) Paul Reil said.
Paul almost lost his life serving the country in Panama in 1977.
“My time in the military was based on very dangerous situations,” Reil said.
Paul dodged death for eight years in the military. He coped by using alcohol when he went back to civilian life at his home in Maryland. His drug and alcohol use eventually spiraled out of control.
“If someone was to offer me a pill or something to lift me up or take me out of me, and then it escalated to illicit street drugs like crack cocaine,” Reil said.
He abused drugs and alcohol for almost 30 years. That led him to homelessness and eventually to the men’s shelter at Lifepath Christian Ministries.
“I’ve been given a second chance,” Reil said. “Most people don’t get a second chance.”
Paul’s second chance began when he walked through the shelter’s doors seven months ago. He’s been clean since then.
You may be wondering what are the resources out there for homeless veterans? There’s a lot if you know where to look for them.
“Homelessness among veterans has actually been around since the time of Abraham Lincoln, so after the Civil War, there were homeless veterans,” said Christopher Hoffman, chief of social work and community care for the Lebanon VA Medical Center.
Hoffman oversees more than 20 social workers who deal solely with homelessness at the VA.
“I think it’s a disgrace,” Hoffman said. “I think that no one who put on a uniform to defend our nation should be homeless.”
Almost 1,200 veterans in Pennsylvania were reported homeless in 2016, according to HUD data. Dauphin County ranked number one in the Midstate with 50 homeless veterans. That’s up 13 percent from 2015. Lancaster County had 17 homeless veterans, down 39 percent from the previous year, while York County had 13 veterans without homes, a 56 percent decrease.
“PTSD, traumatic brain injury, these are invisible disabilities,” Hoffman said.
Hoffman says mental illness and poverty can also lead veterans to homelessness.
“There is no number above zero that’s an acceptable number for homeless veterans,” Hoffman said.
The VA provides a wide variety of assistance to help reduce that number, including HUD vouchers, employment and health care assistance, and counseling.
“We depend upon our partners in the community, organizations like the YWCA in Harrisburg, the YMCA,” Hoffman said.
Homeless veterans can stay up to two years in dorms through a partnership between the East Shore YMCA and the YWCA of Greater Harrisburg.
“We have 16 rooms that we dedicate to homeless veterans here at the East Shore YMCA,” said Chad Krebs, executive director of the East Shore YMCA.
“These are my brothers and sisters,” said Bill Reed, director of veteran services for the YWCA of Greater Harrisburg.
Reed is also a veteran with 26 years of service.
“We’re letting them know that even if they were alone, and yesterday they felt they had nothing and no one was there, we’re there for them, and we’re going to make them feel like they belong in our community,” Reed said.
Homeless veterans receive much more than just housing in this program.
“They would meet with one of our case managers. They would meet with a VA case manager regularly. They would be connected to employment services. They could work. We would help them find jobs,” Reed said.
Several of those case workers go to Lifepath Christian Ministries in York every Wednesday morning to help veterans like Paul Reil.
Six organizations help homeless veterans at Lifepath Christian Ministries every Weds.
“They served us. It’s time for us to serve them,” said Laura Ruhling, supportive service for veterans and families case manager, with the YWCA of Greater Harrisburg.
Six different agencies, from Pennsylvania CareerLink York County to the VA, help homeless veterans get back on their feet in a one-stop shop.
“The amount of time it takes to apply for benefits, like social security benefits, can take up to a year, so they’re just stuck,” Ruhling said.
“The real misconception is that a homeless person is someone different than anyone,” Reed said. “Anyone can become homeless with just a few bad things happening in their life.”
“I want to go to work and just be a regular, decent person,” Paul said.
Paul has big plans for his future.
“I’d like to be self-sufficient, own my own home, live the American dream.”
He’s also thankful for the life he’s now living.
“It’s a blessing that I can wake up and say, ‘Thank you for letting me get up today. Thank you that I have a clear head. Thank you that I have all my moving parts.’ Therefore, life has so much more meaning,” Paul said.
The memories of his service may not be as fresh as they once were in Paul’s mind, but he carries his years of service to heart and hopes to help others once in his shoes.
The YWCA of Greater Harrisburg just placed Paul in his own apartment in York.
Veterans who are homeless or who are at risk of being homeless can call the National Call Center for Homeless Veterans at 877-4AID-VET or 877-424-3838. You can speak to trained VA counselors 24 hours a day, seven days a week.