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Oakland County seeks a home for every veteran

Mike Martindale
The Detroit News

Pontiac — To some, the rented duplex on East Cornell may seem a little cramped and in need of some cleaning and new window screens.

Veteran Bobby Kirkland, top, who was homeless living in Oakland County, walks into his new home in Pontiac with his son, Ja-Boree Kirkland, 4. “I would like to eventually purchase a home but for now, this is very nice. I’m grateful,” Kirkland said.

For Bobby Kirkland, who for the past year has worried about where he would live, it’s his castle.

When Kirkland and his wife split up, the unemployed 67-year-old Army veteran who served in Thailand with the U.S. Army from 1968-69 and was discharged in 1971 could no longer meet the rent on their apartment and he and his 4-year-old son Ja-Boree, temporarily moved into an area hotel.

He’s worked as a truck driver, construction worker and a painter’s helper, but accelerating medical problems — including severe arthritis in his back, shoulder and leg and a deteriorating spine — have left him classified as disabled, unable to work.

Kirkland credits his minister at the Liberty Missionary Baptist Church in Pontiac and his caseworker with the Oakland Livingston Human Services Agency with helping to stabilize their lives.

“Its nice, comfortable, the area’s comfortable,” said Kirkland, no longer one of Oakland County’s homeless vets. “I would like to eventually purchase a home but for now, this is very nice. I’m grateful.”

People such as Kirkland underscore a problem that has yet to be resolved despite the best of intentions. Officials say there are thousands of veterans who move from shelter to shelter, sleeping in cars, under freeway bridges, vacant buildings, or even cemeteries.

The number appears to be decreasing with Oakland County officials saying they will have wiped out homelessness among veterans by September. Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson asked potential landlords to become veteran-friendly because of a lack of available housing for the group.

The problem of homeless veterans is one multiple agencies have wrestled with for years. Definitions vary for counting the veteran homeless population and understandably, data doesn’t always match up.

It’s a big problem. Experts put the national number of homeless veterans at 47,725 with 1,067 of them in Michigan. A conservative estimate says there are at least 359 Metro Detroit homeless veterans spread out across Oakland, Macomb and Wayne counties where more than 2,000 were identified as homeless at some point during 2015.

“We are making progress, the numbers show that,” said Patricia A. Wolschon, a Veterans Affairs spokeswoman and director of homeless programming at the John D. Dingell VA Medical Center in Detroit.

“National initiatives — like formulating ‘By Name Lists’ per county — have helped us identify those who need immediate help. Part of the problem in the past was being able to agree on who was obtaining services and where.”

Wolschon said the veteran’s homeless initiative is so successful it is expected to eventually be broadened to help two other groups: the chronic homeless and homeless families.

To help homeless vets throughout Michigan and the country find housing, the federal Housing and Urban Development and Veterans Affairs departments announced last week $38 million nationwide to help find homes for 5,200 veterans.

The Flint Housing Commission was awarded $22,380; the Ann Arbor Housing Commission $47,232; the John Dingell VA Medical Center in Detroit $251,160 and the Aleda E. Lutz VA Medical Center in Saginaw $60,060 through the Michigan State Housing Development Authority; the Lansing Housing Commission, $29,160; and the Kent County Housing Commission in Grand Rapids $63,228.

Bobby Kirkland stands on the steps of his new home on East Cornell in Pontiac with his son, Ja-Boree Kirkland, 4, sitting behind him.

Number hard to pin down

Sarah Sporny, who compiles data for the Homeless Management Information System for Oakland County, said head counts at shelters and on the street the last Wednesday of each January provide only partial contrasts of reduction or growth in the problem.

“It is done over a four-hour period when it is usually really, really cold,” Sporny explained. “By then the homeless veterans — if they are fortunate to find somewhere warm — are already hunkered in.”

This past January during the count there were 433 homeless veterans found across Metro Detroit, compared to 567 during a count in 2015 and 616 in 2014.

One thing all seem to agree on is through inter-agency communication and cooperation there appears to be significant inroads being made.

Garth E. Wooten of Oakland county’s veteran services division is part of a task force which meets weekly to review each homeless veteran in Oakland County.

To date, the Oakland County collaborative effort has housed more than 170 veterans and has identified an additional 36 veterans still in need, Wooten said.

Oakland County Veterans’ Services helps veterans and their families obtain and maintain all veterans-related benefits from federal, state, and local government agencies and if possible, housing voucher or subsidies. The process of finding, applying for, receiving and maintaining veteran’s benefits can be confusing and frustrating.

Wooten points out it is not a simple problem and has no simple solutions. The homeless veteran’s needs are many, including physical and mental services.

“We want to address all of it,” Wooten said. “But the first step is getting someone housing.”

‘Always going to be need’

Macomb County agencies turn to several organizations funded by grants and three shelters to provide temporary housing for homeless veterans.

“The beds are not full,” said Laura Rios, director of the county’s veterans affairs office. “But there is always going to be need. Someone will always be faced with eviction or foreclosure. Or been laid off from a job.

“We need to have the services in place to help them when this happens,” she said.

Sandy Bower, founder of the nonprofit Veterans Returning Home, a 43-bed facility in Roseville, has a darker view. Despite the best efforts of many and government funded program, homeless veterans face a difficult future.

“It is horrendous, it is horrific and with the baby boomer generation aging, I’m afraid its going to get worse,” she said.

Bower estimates at least 350 veterans have stayed in her facility at some point in the past two and a half years. She said the veterans, with average stays of between three and six months, have moved on to government-arranged or supported housing elsewhere, not always with good results since they lack supplies essential to daily living such as pots and pans to cook meals.

Bower said many veterans are unaware of programs that can provide help with economic, health and housing needs.

“In some cases, these people may just end up back on the street,” she added.

mmartindale@detroitnews.com

(248) 338-0319

Oakland County homeless veterans snapshot

Average age: 48

Gender: Men, about 88 percent; women 12 percent

Race: White, 49.65 percent; black, 48.94 percent

Disabled: 66.67 percent

Living on street or emergency shelter more than 12 months: 20.3 percent

Education: High school diploma, 40.74 percent; some college, 13.58 percent; college degree, 6.17 percent.

Had been living somewhere not meant for habitation: 25.53 percent

Source: Veterans Affairs Medical staff and Homeless Management Information System administrators

Where to get help

Veterans needing housing help or other services should contact their county veterans affairs office.

Oakland County Veterans Services: (248) 655-1250 (Southeast Oakland Office); (248) 858-0785 (Pontiac Office)

Landlords interested in helping veterans should call the Alliance for Housing at (248) 221-1854 or email lmccall-alliance@oaklandhomeless.org.

Macomb County Veterans Services: (586) 469-5315

Wayne County Veterans Services: (313) 224-5045