Vermont's Homeless Veterans

In two weeks, as we prepare to celebrate Veterans Day, we should not lose sight of the fact the true meaning of the day.

Vermont, according to the State Department of Veterans Affairs, has over 48,800 veterans including 23,500 over 65 years of age. Bennington County alone has just under 2,000 in the latter grouping. What is so important is that we have excellent services within the county and state available to all our veterans.

One of the oldest, established in the 1880s, is the Vermont Veterans Home.

This treasure serves veterans from around the state. Its services go beyond that of a skilled nursing home. In fact it offers physical rehabilitation, independent and assisted living and a nationally recognized Alzheimer's unit.

The governance of this, $20 million annual budget - 170-bed facility is in the hands of 18 board members most of whom are retired military and all appointed by the governor.

In addition to the Home, Vermont also has a Veterans Administration hospital, in White River Junction. Affiliated with the Dartmouth-Mary Hitchcock Medical Center, it is able to provide first class medical services to our veterans.

Another veterans organization, not as well known and located within the former commandant's home at the Vermont Veterans Home (no affiliation) is, the Veterans Outreach and Family Center. It carries on a unique role by assisting veterans.

Veterans come to the Center for help in filling out the numerous forms necessary to obtain medical, housing, employment and other assistance as well as being directed to the Bennington VA Clinic, located within a few blocks from the Center.

However, what impressed me during my tour of the Center's facility was the room located in basement of the building. Here I discovered a set of shelves that contained insulated boots, field jackets, backpacks (no racks) and military style sleeping bags. When I asked why have such items, the response from the various trustees, who were guiding me through the building was almost disbelief - to provide outdoor survival gear for homeless veterans who choose to live in the forests of Vermont.

"On an annual basis, the Center receives from the Department of Defense approximately 50 sleeping bags as well as other outdoor clothing. The gear is distributed, without charge, to any veteran who wishes to not live in transitional, HUD or other temporary housing." According to Leigh M. Smith, LCSW, an employee of the U. S. Dept. of Veterans Affairs and the Bennington/Rutland Counties Healthcare for Homeless Veterans coordinator, Vermont has over 250 homeless veterans. She along with seven of her fellow colleagues, located throughout the state keep track of each of them.

Smith noted that many of the homeless vets and specifically, those who wish to live in the forest, do so under their own volition. They are survivalists and just want to be alone. She will not visit them at their camps. However, they know where she can be reached and from time to time will visit with her to obtain their mail, medicines and other essentials. The veterans also keep her informed as to how they are coping.

Many of Vermont's homeless vets are at times referred to as "snowbirds."

Meaning, once the Vermont winter begins to set in they take off for points south, in Florida, Georgia and South Carolina.

Vermont's Homeless Veterans is a recognized issue by the U. S. Department of Veterans Affairs. So much so that a 22-page publication - "Health Care For Homeless Veterans," Participant Handbook is provided by Leigh Smith and her colleagues to homeless veterans. The publication's table of contents covers 43 topics - ranging from employment, meals and food support, dental care, peer support, treatment programs, primary mental health, permanent housing as well as other topics.

No one wishes to hear there are homeless Veterans in Vermont - and worse, that some are residing in the woods. Nevertheless, it is comforting to know that our state and federal government are doing all that they can to make sure a homeless veteran does indeed have someone looking out for him/her.

If anyone doubts this, spend some time with the staff or volunteers at the Vermont Veterans Home, The VA Clinic or at the Bennington Veterans Outreach & Family Resource Center. However, we too can help the homeless Veteran and according to those who work with our veterans, our help can be a simple donation of a gift card.

Don Keelan writes a bi-weekly column and lives in Arlington.


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