“Veteran and homeless should never be in the same sentence,” says Erik Wallin, the South Kingstown lawyer who was the Republican candidate for Attorney General last year.
A veteran, Wallin has gotten an upclose look of how many veterans are homeless since he became director of Operation Stand Down RI three months ago. He is also getting a handle on how much more this non-profit, formed in 1993, could do to help our veterans.
No longer after taking on the job, Wallin recalls, a veteran walked into the office with his dog. The man had learned about the organization from the three-day encampment held this fall at the Diamond Hill Park in Cumberland. More than 300 veterans attended the event, where organizations from the Veterans Administration to those helping people struggling with legal issues, housing and finding a job offered their services.
The man with his dog was reluctant to talk about himself and said he was looking to just learn more, to gather information. Wallin took him out for breakfast and to talk.
The man ate half his breakfast and then asked for a take out container for the rest. Wallin suspected he was saving it for the dog. Wallin learned the man had disability benefits, but was broke.
Later, back at the office, Wallin checked with the Veterans Administration. The man’s story checked out. He was a Vietnam veteran and he had benefits.
By that afternoon, Operation Stand Down had found housing for the man in one of the five houses they operate. Wallin and the vet had made a trip to Stop & Shop where they bought food for the man and the dog. Vets living in Operation Stand Down housing are permitted to have pets. Connections were made so the veteran could gain mental health services and assistance in managing his benefits.
What Wallin is doing now, he says, “is the most rewarding thing I’ve done. It’s been hands-on experience.”
Wallin served in the Air Force where he was a captain and a judge advocate general, or JAG.
As was the case with the Vietnam veteran and his dog, Wallin finds one of the greatest challenges in helping this shadow population of homeless veterans is getting them to seek help. They are living in the woods, out of cars or “couch surfing” between the homes of friends and family members. They’re proud and they want to feel self-sufficient. They don’t want to be a burden.
For those reasons it’s difficult to get a handle on the numbers of homeless veterans. One estimate puts the national population at 144,000. Wallin believes the number is low and subject to fluctuation depending on the factors used in the calculation.
Speaking at the Thursday meeting of the Rotary Club of Warwick, Wallin called homeless veterans a “national tragedy and a national travesty.”
Also, he expressed his wariness with President Obama’s goal to end veteran homelessness in five years, as positive as that is. His fear is the problem can be easily masked, for example, by tallying just those who identify themselves as veterans when using homeless shelters.
In Rhode Island, the numbers range from 300 to 800 homeless vets. Based on what he is seeing, Wallin believes the number is far greater. For this reason he is working to expand the current complement of five houses with 41 units. There are currently OSD properties in Johnston, West Warwick and Providence. The Holly Charette House in Johnston specifically houses female veterans.
The organization is in the process of building another house with 10 units in Westerly and he is looking for properties in Newport, as Operation Stand Down lacks a presence in the East Bay.
“The key to solving the need [for housing] is to address the root cause,” Wallin says.
Wallin said the transition from the military, especially for those who have been serving in Iraq and Afghanistan under the threat of being shot at or the victim of an improvised explosion device is omnipresent, is very difficult. Many have served multiple deployments and many suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. Families break up. Veterans can’t find jobs. Their lives spiral out of control quickly.
“They have no money, no place to go,” Wallin told Rotarians.
“We do a lot more than four walls and a roof,” he added.
With his knowledge of the court system, Wallin was able to help one veteran who had accumulated numerous motor vehicle violations. He wasn’t able to pay the fines and couldn’t get a license, and without a car he couldn’t keep his job. Wallin explained the vet’s service to the judge and that he had suffered from PTSD. An arrangement was worked out so the veteran got back his license. He now has a job.
Wallin is also in the process of beefing up the organization. Asked about the budget, he said Operation Stand Down operates off allocations and grants on a month-to-month basis and is looking to develop a long-range structure provided by a budget and planning. Annual costs are in the range of $500,000.
In addition to himself, the agency employs five full-timers and two part-timers.
So far he’s encouraged by what he’s found.
While veterans can stay up to two years in Operation Stand Down housing, he said the average stay is eight months before transitioning into permanent housing with support.
“It’s a hand up, not a hand out,” he says.
From his experience in the Air Force, Wallin understands why veterans take comfort in rules and “by and large they follow them.” As tenants, they are assigned duties. There are quiet hours.
Additional information is available at the Operation Stand Down website: osdri.org.