On a Tuesday afternoon in February, three homeless men sat with veteran advocates Vern Jorgensen and Tonya Hall in a spare room on the third floor of Building 2 on the Roseburg Veterans Affairs Medical Center campus.
They were there to learn the hoops they’d have to jump through to obtain the golden ticket of veteran housing — a HUD-VASH voucher.
The voucher program is one of the VA’s tools for pursuing its mission to end veteran homelessness in Douglas County. That day, the VA had 12 of its allotted 111 vouchers left.
Jorgenson injected humor into the proceedings and subtly let the veterans know he was an Army vet himself, that he understood them. He wanted to help these men feel at ease.
Maybe they hadn’t had a real home for years. Maybe they were struggling with drinking problems, post-traumatic stress disorder, unemployment, but he believed they could dig their way back out of the hole.
“The second you give us all the documentation we’ve requested, you go to No. 1 on the ready list,” he said.
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The program doesn’t end when participating veterans are handed the keys to their new homes. Case managers will routinely visit to check up on them.
They’ll want to be sure there’s some furniture in the home. They’ll offer to hook them up with services like mental health counseling and substance abuse treatment. They’ll offer work opportunities at the VA.
But first, there was the paperwork. There was an income qualification and a service qualification. Single veterans couldn’t earn more than $1,596 a month. If they served before 1980, they only had to have served one day. If they served after that, they had to have served at least 2 years or have been injured.
And they couldn’t be a registered sex offender.
The whole idea, Hall explained, is to help the veteran who’s been in a bad situation get stabilized.
It had been a long time since Nate (not his real name) had been stable. A 30-something father of three who served in the Army and had post-traumatic stress disorder despite never having been in combat, Nate had been couch surfing with two sons and a daughter, all under 13, for the past three years.
Nate said he didn’t drink or do drugs. Tobacco was his one vice, he said. He stayed home with his kids, so he could be considered a homemaker or unemployed. But it was clear he wanted a job. He brightened considerably when Jorgensen suggested a vocational rehabilitation program that offered compensated work therapy on the VA campus.
“I’d love to work here, actually,” Nate said.
If Nate wasn’t able to find a couch, he’d be on the streets. There was no shelter in Roseburg that would take him and his children — ages 12, 10 and 4. If he was a woman, he could have stayed at the Samaritan House. But the Roseburg Rescue Mission doesn’t offer housing for dads and kids to stay together.
He’d never been married. He won custody of the kids after he and his girlfriend grew apart.
“We became toxic with each other, so we called it quits before every day became verbal combat,” he said.
Nate joined the Army in 2004 and stayed for six years, becoming a specialist. He was stationed in Japan during part of his service. He joined the Army because the Air Force told him he had a better chance of being struck by lightning than getting in and he didn’t want to be what he called the Navy’s boots in the ocean.
He had been homeless twice over the past three years. This time, it had been about nine months since he’d had a permanent home.
Jorgensen was optimistic about the chances of Nate getting approved for HUD-VASH. Through the course of asking Nate about his situation, Jorgensen made notes on a checklist. In the end, he scored it. Nate had 24 out of 40 points, an average score. It was a good score, Jorgensen said, because it was high enough to show he needed help now, but low enough to suggest he wouldn’t need it forever. He was likely to become a successful graduate of the program.
And since he had kids, if Nate jumped through the hoops right away he could move to the top of the list.
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First, he needed to provide a social security card for everyone in his family, bank statements for the previous six months, SNAP income statements and proof he was eligible for VA benefits, among other things.
If he was successful, caseworkers would visit him for the next year — once a week at first to see how he was adjusting and after that, the frequency of visits would stretch to once every few weeks and then to once every three months.
“We expect you for that year to better yourself, get some furniture, pay off your debt, so in a year you are able to step out,” Jorgensen said.
Army veteran Monte Noffsinger found a home at Orchard Knoll transitional housing complex on the VA campus with the help of VA caseworkers.
Noffsinger served from 1985 to 1988. He was a tank crew member with a unit that trained to respond anywhere in the world in 72 hours, but the unit was never deployed to do that.
Still, Noffsinger suffered injury as a result of his service. During a training exercise, an electronic explosive device detonated two feet from his head.
“I don’t know why I lived, I don’t know. I can see the smoke go past my head. I was instantly deaf, instantly unconscious. It wasn’t lasting very long, but I woke up and I couldn’t hear nobody,” he said.
He said either that incident or the gas he was exposed to during training damaged his brain. He’s lost most of his childhood memories, he said.
Noffsinger was able to work after he left the service, first at a mill whose name he’s forgotten and later at a Weyerhaeuser plant in Eugene. He left his job, accepting a buyout during the 2008 housing crisis, and then wasn’t able to find full-time work. He worked odd jobs, mostly temporary, after that.
Not long ago, he began to have problems he attributed to lingering effects from the accident. He kept losing his balance, he said. Then he had a stroke.
Today, he has to walk with a cane, and can’t walk in a straight line because his sense of balance is off. No employer would touch him, he said. He moved in with his daughter and cared for his grandkids in exchange for room and board. Then they were evicted.
Without money or housing, Noffsinger wound up in an emergency shelter.
“I’m not a druggie. I’m not a criminal. I don’t have any negative background at all. I’m the anomaly. That’s what the guy at the shelter called me, the anomaly, because everybody there has problems with drugs, law, alcohol or something else and I just happen to be the one dude there that just happened to be there,” he said.
“I was caught with my pants down. I could see it coming, but there was nothing I could do about it,” he said.
His fortunes began to turn around when he called the VA and got hooked up with the homeless veteran advocates there. He hadn’t even known the program existed.
HUD-VASH Case Manager Breana Pritchard helped him find a spot at Orchard Knoll and regularly checks up on him to ensure things are going OK. It’s a tiny apartment, but it’s home to Noffsinger.
“This program has been a lifesaver,” Noffsinger said.