The Brunswick community said goodbye to a dear friend last week. As most of you have already read, Russell Williams died alone under the Federal Street bridge in downtown Brunswick on November 23rd. Last Thursday over 100 people attended the Celebration of Life at The Gathering Place in Russell’s honor. Many shared wonderful memories, sang songs, and enjoyed an opportunity to say goodbye.

The loss of Russell to the Gathering Place is profound and I find myself wondering what next? How do we honor his memory? One way is to shine a light on the fact that Rusell was a veteran. Many people mistakenly believe that since there is a VA and other government agencies that are tasked with helping homeless veterans that there is no pressing need to do more, but this is completely false. Veterans deserve to be made whole, and to have a place to call home that is their own.

American veterans have sacrificed and risked everything to protect this country. In spite of their sacrifice there are no guarantees for their long term health and safety once they enter civilian life. An estimated 278 veterans became homeless last year in Maine according to the The Maine Homeless Veterans Action Committee. Among Veterans like Russell, a variety of experiences contributed to their risk for experiencing housing instability and homelessness.

These may include poverty, unemployment and economic hardships, trauma, PTSD, substance use disorders, family or relationship conflicts, disruptions in connections to social support networks, social isolation, and incarceration. They have been separated from their friends and families and placed in hostile situations, where injury or death is a very real possibility. In order for stable housing to be a real solution, these issues need to be addressed.

Substance abuse and mental health treatment programs are part of the solution but there are not enough resources statewide. The HUD-VASH program is a collaborative program between HUD and VA which emphasizes the “Housing First” model of care. In this program, homeless veterans receive a housing choice rental voucher from HUD, which is paired with VA case management and supportive services to sustain housing stability and recovery. Once issued a VASH voucher, the program allows for 60 days to locate housing.

Russell was lucky to have received the support of the VA resources from Preble Street Veteran services and was issued a voucher. However, those 60 days came and went with no success of finding housing. The supply of available affordable housing is scarce and the emergency shelter system is maxed out as well. The waiting lists for Brunswick Housing Authority property is years long and there are few private landlords available to help. This left Russell with nowhere to go.

Some possible ideas on how you can help the homeless veteran population in your area of the USA include:

● Contact homeless and veteran organizations in your area to see what you can do. Our area agencies include:

• Preble Street Veteran Housing Services: 1-800-377-5709 • Veterans, Inc. 207-298-0458 • VA Maine Healthcare System 1-800-424-3838 • Volunteers of America 207-571-3359 • Easter Seals of Maine 207-828-0754×1004

● Volunteer to help in any way that you can, whether that is filling out paperwork or trying to locate homeless veterans who need assistance and shelter.

● Donate to veteran organizations and charities that are specifically designed to assist the veteran population. These funds are sorely needed, and even a small donation can have a big impact on the life of a homeless veteran.

● Contact your politicians and elected officials to bring attention to the need for helping homeless veterans. When voters reach out to those in elected positions changes in the current laws or veterans programs are possible so that veterans receive additional assistance and have an easier time accessing the programs designed to help them once their military service is finished.

In recent years, there have been significant federal investments in research and data collection to improve our understanding of Veterans experiencing homelessness and the impact of programs that serve them. These investments have enhanced our understanding of the need for and impacts of interventions that prevent and end homelessness among Veterans.

Mary Connolly is the executive director of The Gathering Place daytime drop-in center. Giving Voice is a weekly collaboration among four local non-profit service agencies to share information and stories about their work in the community. 

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