Chris Noel
Chris Noel
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Washington, DC

Chris Noel's
Testimony Before The
United States House Of Representatives
Committee on Veterans' Affairs

Mr. Chairmen, thank you for allowing me to make several requests on behalf of all homeless American Veterans. The requests I now make of you are based upon my experience and dedication in working in many areas with the military and veterans since 1965.

Most important, I specialize in the work of returning the disabled and homeless veteran back to society by traveling throughout America speaking on veterans issues at the request of veterans organizations; also by forming and running the homeless veterans shelters of Vetsville Cease Fire House in Florida.

Florida has according to the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans’ 1994 "Report to the Nation" 13,450 homeless v eterans, the fourth largest of the states. I believe those numbers are increasing due to the attraction of a new VA Medical Center and the mobile homeless veteran population.

The homeless veteran is a federal problem, not a local community problem. The men and women of the military had a contract with the United States government. Seeking the "geographical cure," many veterans have become transients. They are the "hobos" of today.

Please understand why so many American Veterans are homeless. Many of the military dependents are receiving food stamps. This is where today’s problem starts. If these military families are not treated honorably now, they will become the "new homeless." The United States Government trains, feeds, clothes and houses troops for specific jobs or as warriors. They are totally taken care of, paid salaries and are required to do what they are told to do. When they leave the service, all of a sudden, they have to drop all training and learn different survival skills in an urban setting without proper debriefing.

Homeless veterans have many barriers and complex life circumstances which make them difficult to serve. These men and women watch their dignity fall away as they live day-to-day, hand-to-mouth, clinging desperately to the emptiness of their lives. On many occasions I have heard "Nobody cares about us, we have lost our country."

Veterans, by definition, are Americans who have fought and served to protect the very freedoms that American society enjoys today. Why then, is it that so many of them are in dire need of benefits from the society, which they served and protected?

There are military veterans with the highest military decorations eating out of dumpsters. Why is this allowed to continue?

From my experience there seems to be a problem by the VA with over medicating for physiological health issues because it makes the veteran easier to control. VA medications sometimes create a temporary "zombie" effect. When Vetsville attempts to work with social workers and doctors to help the veteran seeking our help, we are ignored, even though the veteran has signed the proper forms for release of information. This lack of co-operation necessitates taking the veteran to a private physician or hospital.

Many veterans are emotional time bombs. When a veteran goes to the VA to be helped, instead of helping the veteran deal with the emotions through therapy, or by talking to the veteran about the problem and acknowledging his problem, the veteran is first put into a lock-up ward that can create a tremendous resentment.

Veterans were trained to be undefeated. Those that have never taken an illegal drug are now labeled drug addicts because the VA has made them that way. Then they hide from society in a shack, the woods, under bridges or anywhere so that they don’t have to suffer from the anxieties of trying to communicate with others. Once these people become accustomed to homelessness, it then becomes very difficult to change.

I continually hear, "Let the VA take care of them." Let’s face it, many Vietnam and Gulf War veterans don’t trust the VA system or find it too bureaucratic.

Homeless veterans need an open channel in order to be heard. They need a "watchdog" over the VA. Filling out complaint forms at the VAMC merely labels the veteran as "just another disturbed vet." This is a convenient method to avoid his pleas for assistance.

One of the most pressing needs we have experienced that the VA has minimal capacity to provide is dental care. It is difficult to obtain stable employment without front teeth. It is also a health issue since many suffer from malnutrition because they are unable to chew food or they have infections that go untreated.

Transportation funding is needed to provide access to medical appointment and job search for veterans in community-based organizations. The cost of maintaining our vehicles, insurance and fuel can significantly impact our operating budget and it is a difficult item to find funding for. Most homeless veterans do not have the mode of transportation to make all the appointments required as an outpatient. When appointments are missed it can take months for a new appointment that can be devastating to a PTSD patient. Transportation is critical for the veteran searching for employment, and traveling to and from the job site.

I formally requested assistance for homeless veterans in our hospital catchment area in a letter to Secretary of Veterans Affairs. I begged for his help with the local VA. I never received a response. A phone conference was held without Vetsville participation in the West Palm Beach VA Medical Center Directors office with VA staff only in attendance. The outcome was that the hospital homeless coordinator was doing a good job because they were active on local community boards. There was no measure how the treatment of homeless veterans in the hospital catchment area. Maybe good public relations for the new VA, but not in delivering services to homeless veterans. The VA with their public relations receives the credit while community-based organizations do the majority of the work. Why in this area does the VA not work more with the community-based organizations to expand the services to homeless veterans?

The Vetsville Program works! Vetsville (West Palm Beach house pictured) provides a structured, drug and alcohol free environment for troubled veterans to heal and prepare to re-enter the main stream of society. We could greatly benefit from the VA truly becoming our partner to serve the homeless veterans in our community instead of constructing barriers that are difficult to remove.

Vetsville has applied for Federal grants but has been unsuccessful in obtaining any funding. Grants could greatly aid in the care of homeless veterans by expanding our capacity to serve the large number of homeless veterans in our area. Vetsville is in this community providing the much-needed services of safe, clean, sober housing for veterans. In Palm Beach County, this grass root, nationally recognized agency does as much if not more than the VA for homeless veterans. Our organization does not have the capacity or the expertise to search for funding sources and complete all the necessary paperwork for each proposal. Organizations like ours could benefit greatly from technical assistance if it was available. We would be able to increase our capacity to serve homeless veterans and measure the outcomes more specifically.

The VA Homeless Provider Grant and Per Diem program process is complicated, confusing, political and unrewarding. Its pages too long, too detailed and not clear. Here’s a quote from an attorney who helped write our grant; "Anyone who even files this paperwork deserves a grant." Vetsville never knew why we were never awarded a grant from the VA process. A clear explanation would have been instrumental for the future. Why won’t the VA help us? Often the grant money will be awarded to a government agency instead of community-based organizations. Why do government agencies receive funding from another government agency?

Often veterans can only find day labor jobs because of their work history and need access to fulltime employment in order to be able to live independently. Day labor does not work to end homelessness! Most employers hi re only manual labor as day labor. Many veterans cannot lift. Day labor also depends upon good weather.

Veterans are considered a liability to society that makes it’s difficult to find a good job or housing. How many employers are willing to allow a person time off during work hours to go to the VA for appointments? Many veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) also have a chemical imbalance that needs continual monitoring through hospital vists.

Many PTSD veterans have a total inability to hold a permanent job. However, at Vetsville they have an opportunity to work part time. Some of them only work well at night. These vets are great workers. They work with pride and diligence. We talk with them, we listen, and we support them. The veteran’s self-esteem grows. Sometimes their medicines are lowered. The veteran is stronger.

Targeted funding for employment programs specifically for homeless veterans is critical since the veterans have so many barriers to overcome. It takes a special set of skills and knowledge to work with the veterans and potential employers that is not available in mainstream programs.

It’s not uncommon for very sick veterans to be turned down by the VA for service-connected disabilities 18 to 20 times. Many of these men are too young for social security and full time employment is not a realistic expectation for them. A fast track review process could greatly impact the ability of homeless veterans receiving needed services in a timelier manner.

Incarcerated veterans are warehoused for punishment and return to society homeless. A report released in January 2000 by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, US Department of Justice "Veterans in Prison or Jail" states there are 225,700 veterans in Federal prisons and local jails. Veterans makeup 14.5% of the Federal jail population and about 12 % of state and local jails. Pre-release counseling is needed to insure that these veterans are able to return to a productive life after release and not become homeless. Many of these veterans show up in community-based organizations directly from incarceration without having being treated for alcohol or substance abuse or their mental health issues so they consume additional resources for issues that should have been addressed prior to release.

In conclusion, we of Vetsville request that you do the following on behalf of homeless American veterans:

-- Support community-based organizations that provide for safe housing with food and daily counseling in a cost effective manner specifically for homeless veterans.

-- Assure that federal funds allotted for the homelessness goes to grass roots programs that specialize in serving the homeless veteran, not to other government agencies.

-- Implement an expanded VA dental program that addresses the special needs of homeless veterans.

-- Require the VA to work with community-based providers serving homeless veterans in a meaningful collaborative effort to address the local needs of veterans.

On behalf of all homeless veterans, I want to personally thank you for your hearts and minds.

-Chris Noel