Last year, 60 Minutes featured a story on the alarming number of veterans who have come into contact with the criminal justice system through arrest over the past decade. Many of these men and women belong to our new generation of American vets, those recently home from Iraq and Afghanistan. While most of these men and women do not have to endure the kinds of alienating indignities that were heaped on Vietnam veterans, it often seems like many of the lessons that were supposedly learned by our American society and government thirty or forty years ago have been forgotten. What happens when combat veterans are reintegrated into a society that is fundamentally out of touch with their experience? What happens when those same veterans either cannot access, or are not aware of programs to help them with addiction, depression, anxiety, and post traumatic stress? The answer is that many of them end up in jail. But with a critically overwhelmed corrections system, a system which may not be equipped to help someone struggling with combat stress, lawmakers and the American people cannot simply continue to lock these people up as a solution.
The 60 Minutes piece focused on a new Veterans Court in Harris County (Houston), Texas. The new court is similar to many courts that have sprung up around the country in the past few years and is modeled on the drug court system. There are several qualifications for defendants to have their case heard in this separate docket, but in general, they must be a veteran with no worse than a general discharge under honorable conditions, and must be suffering from an injury or mental illness related to their service which materially affected their criminal conduct. Serious felonies such as capital murder, drug trafficking, sexual assault, etc. would be automatic disqualifiers. (To read the qualifications as posted by the Texas Civil Rights Project, click here and scroll to page seven.) After arraignment and sentencing, program participants go through a kind of criminal court academy for veterans, and hopefully they graduate successfully rehabilitated (they only get to go through this system once). However, the program is not easy. Extensive group therapy, addiction treatment (if necessary), and anger management are the norm, and the rules for participation are very strict. Watch the video and see how the court has been a tremendous success and a godsend for many veterans in Houston who might otherwise be in prison.
The story also featured interviews with two veterans, both Marines, who have successfully graduated from the program and, for the first time, are dealing with their post traumatic stress in a constructive way. One Marine told the story of his recurring nightmare of a traumatic event that happened in Anbar Province, Iraq in January of 2005. A helicopter crashed in the western desert outside Rutbah, killing 30 servicemen. He was sent to assist Mortuary Affairs in the recovery of their remains. I remember when this happened, because I was sitting in the chow hall back at Camp Taqaddum watching this news as I ate breakfast. We had a Mortuary Affairs unit at “TQ” and I was praying that my squad did not have to go out there to provide security overwatch. Seven years later, all I could think of while watching this story on TV was that it could have been me sitting in that jail cell or that courtroom, only I don’t live in Houston or have access to this program. Some counties in Alabama are piloting new Veterans courts, or drug treatment courts for veterans, but more needs to be done to address this problem nationwide. We cannot simply lock these folks up and expect them to get better. If nothing else, the results from similar courts indicate that these programs work by reducing recidivism and unburdening taxpayers. As this generation gets older, incidents of veterans being arrested for crimes related to combat stress will increase unless we do something about it.
Many of One Roof’s member agencies work with clients or community members who are veterans. Agencies whose missions are oriented towards this specific population are very much aware of the challenges facing their veteran clients, and our mission at One Roof is to make sure our agencies are aware of the many issues with which an individual client may struggle. Like other at-risk populations, veterans experiencing homelessness are not so easily placed into a general category. Like all who face a life without a place to call home, there is no veteran archetype to explain each case. We at One Roof are constantly striving to help our agencies understand the dynamic and multi-hued nature of homelessness so they may better serve their clients, and so that, collectively, we are able to make lasting and meaningful change.
One Roof is committed to raising awareness of veterans’ issues, and we are dedicated to preventing and ending veteran homelessness through education, advocacy, and coordination of services. We at One Roof believe that veterans, like all people, deserve safety and stability. Veterans don’t ask for a pat on the back, but we owe it to them to help them heal. Please contact us for help finding appropriate services for veterans experiencing homelessness. Click here to support our efforts.
John McGregor is an AmeriCorps member serving at One Roof as the Communications & Community Outreach Assistant. He served with the Marine Corps Reserve Unit in Bessemer from 2004-2010 and deployed twice to Iraq.
As some of you may know, November is National Runaway Prevention Month. At One Roof’s monthly membership meeting, the Birmingham Working Group of the Alabama Network for Youth, which includes representatives from Children’s Aid Society, Family Connection, and Jefferson County Committee for Economic Opportunity (JCCEO), gave a special presentation to raise awareness of issues facing runaway and homeless youth. Led by Susan Johnston, Executive Director of Family Connection, the group highlighted the following statistics:
These numbers are staggering, and it’s important to note that the nearly 1000 calls made to Safeline last year by Alabama youth were only from youth who sought this form of assistance—this does not include youth in Alabama who didn’t use this service, who might not have even known about this service. We at One Roof believe that all persons deserve to feel safe, gain stability, receive appropriate supportive services, and obtain affordable housing. Runaway and homeless youth have likely left a situation where they didn’t feel safe, stable, or supported. Continued instability puts these youth at great risk and we cannot expect them to become healthy, contributing members of our community if we don’t meet their needs.
Service providers and One Roof member agencies are actively working to meet the needs of runaway and homeless youth in Central Alabama:
Family Connection runs a Runaway and Homeless Youth Shelter in Shelby County, proving a safe space for runaway youth, youth experiencing homelessness, and youth-in-crisis. Family Connection also runs Project Hope in Jefferson County, providing street outreach and drop-in day shelter services to youth experiencing homelessness. They are dedicated to protecting runaway and homeless youth, giving youth the resources they need to regain stability, and reuniting youth with their families and support systems whenever possible. Check out their website for more information about their services.
Youth Towers, under the leadership of Executive Director Alice Westery, works to “provide housing stability for young adults as they transition from foster care or other high risk conditions to self-sustainability.” Youth Towers serves youth aged 19-26 and their services include street outreach, homelessness prevention, case management, career counseling, tutoring, life skill training, and housing relocation and stabilization. They are dedicated to giving youth the resources and support they need to gain stability and become contributing members of our community. Check out their website for more information about their services.
There is also a group called the Sheltering Homeless Youth Project, made up of community volunteers, leaders, and members of St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church. This group is currently working to end youth homelessness in our community by building a home host program and serving youth age 19-24.
Through education, advocacy, and coordination of services, One Roof is dedicated to making sure that runaway and homeless youth feel safe, gain stability, and receive support. This population is very important to us and we’re here to help. Please contact us for assistance with finding appropriate services for runaway and homeless youth. If you’d like to make a donation to support our efforts, please click here.
Josh Helms is an AmeriCorps member serving at One Roof as the Capacity Building Assistant.
Last month, in observation of Domestic Violence Awareness Month, Jennifer Arsenian, legal director of the Alabama Coalition Against Domestic Violence and member of the Alabama Council on Violence Against Women, gave a special presentation at One Roof’s monthly membership meeting. Jennifer encouraged One Roof and its member agencies to be represented in the ACVAW, and informed us about housing-specific updates to the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) in 2013.
ACVAW’s members include representatives from ACADV and ACASV (the Alabama Coalition Against Sexual Violence), social service providers, health care providers, law enforcement, government officials, policy makers, and legislators. Information about their work on the Alabama State Plan Responding to Domestic Violence can be found here.
Here’s a quick recap of some of the housing protections now secured by VAWA:
For more information on VAWA updates and housing protections, check out the Domestic Violence Resource Guide for Public Housing Programs. For information and statistics about domestic violence in Alabama, check out the Alabama Criminal Justice Information Center’s 2012 Domestic Violence in Alabama report.
During One Roof’s most recent Point-in-Time survey, we found that about 10% of our community members experiencing homelessness are victims of domestic violence. In our community of service providers, two of One Roof’s member agencies have programs and services specifically for victims of domestic violence: the YWCA and SafeHouse of Shelby County.
Through education, advocacy, and coordination of services, One Roof is dedicated to making sure that safe and affordable housing is accessible for members of our homeless community who are victims of domestic violence. As always, we’re here to help. Please contact us for assistance finding appropriate services for victims of domestic violence.
Josh Helms is an AmeriCorps member serving at One Roof as the Capacity Building Assistant.