Five tips on how to engage with homeless Veterans

Imagine seeing an unsheltered homeless Veteran as you walk down the street. Then, imagine your immediate reaction: Is it compassion as you momentarily put yourself in their shoes? Is it anger that America has failed so many? Is it a feeling of displeasure that the street has become a home to those with nowhere else to go? Or do you feel a sense of duty to offer them something—anything—that might make their day better?

It can be easy to generalize about the experience of homelessness, especially for those who don’t encounter it on a regular basis. But empathy for your fellow community members can go a long way.

Every Veteran experiencing homelessness has a story to tell and, often, it involves one or more traumas that led them to where they are now.

If you encounter a Veteran living in an encampment, on the street or in a vehicle, you may feel compelled to help. In this article, we hope to provide you with safe, useful ways to support Veterans experiencing homelessness should you feel empowered to do so.

1. Help them call the National Call Center for Homeless Veterans

The fastest way for Veterans to get connected to VA is to call the National Call Center for Homeless Veterans at 877-424-3737. The call is free, confidential and staffed 24/7 with trained counselors who will connect them to their nearest VA medical center for help.

Each VA medical center has a Health Care for Homeless Veterans (HCHV) program with team members who are trained to connect Veterans with resources, such as housing assistance, medical and psychiatric inpatient and outpatient treatment programs, and other community-based residential programs or social services.

In some cases, the team may already have a relationship with the Veteran you’ve encountered and may have begun building their trust, which is an important step when it comes to engagement efforts. Many Veterans aren’t willing to get care after a first encounter, but after building a rapport with a social worker or case manager, they decide to come to VA for help.

It’s beneficial to share the general location of homeless encampments with medical centers as the teams will know where to go to provide outreach and services to Veterans in need, particularly in the winter months and during other extreme weather events.

Remember to treat Veterans experiencing homelessness with respect, and don’t rush them to access services they aren’t comfortable with. It’s not your role to build a relationship with a Veteran experiencing homelessness, but connecting them with trained staff who can help is a crucial first step.

If you believe a person is a Veteran and could benefit from VA services, ask if they have served in the military. Some do not identify as a Veteran despite fitting the description.

2. Show humanity and kindness to people experiencing homelessness

Veterans experiencing homelessness are going through several different physical struggles at any given time, whether they be health issues, hunger, thirst, exhaustion or something else. Keep in mind that many have also experienced trauma that brought them to where they are now. Not knowing where their next meal will come from, where they’ll sleep or if they’ll be safe is likely to make anyone distrustful of institutional services.

3. Offer a connection to resources

If you’re looking for a simple way to share the resources VA has available to help Veterans, we encourage you to carry printouts with information or water bottles with the Veterans Crisis Line and National Call Center for Homeless Veterans written on it so Veterans know where they can go for help when they are ready.

If a Veteran isn’t comfortable using VA services, there are community agencies VA can connect them with. These community providers often offer things VA cannot, such as support geared toward families. Libraries are also great hubs for homeless Veterans to find resources to help them through the day, including bathrooms, air conditioning, computers, entertainment and more.

4. Leave judgments and misconceptions about homelessness aside

There are lots of misconceptions about homelessness, including how it happens and why people remain homeless. Unfortunately, homelessness tends to be a cycle that is hard to break out of with job instability and lack of medical care contributing to the issue.

Veterans become homeless in several different ways, including job loss, illness of themselves or a family member, shortage of affordable housing, loss of a home, health issues and substance abuse to name a few.

Showing kindness and instilling hope can go a long way: Smile, say hello and ask their name. Treat them as you would treat any other person having a bad day. If you are able and comfortable, give them a bottle of water, or a prepackaged snack or food for their pet.

5. Consider volunteering to help Veterans experiencing homelessness

If you are interested in providing more help than a single interaction can provide, consider volunteering at a local Stand Down event. Stand Downs are typically one-to-three-day events during which VA staff and volunteers provide food, clothing and health screenings to homeless and at-risk Veterans. Veterans receive referrals for health care, housing solutions, employment, substance use treatment, mental health counseling and other essential services.

You can also reach out to your local VA for information on volunteering, as they have services that allow you to provide help in a more structured environment and share your time and resources with the local Veteran community.

Learn about VA programs

Visit the VA Homeless Programs website to learn about housing initiatives and other programs for Veterans exiting homelessness.

Find your nearest VA.

Check out the Ending Veteran Homelessness podcast to learn more about what VA is doing about Veteran homelessness.

Learn how to get involved with housing homeless Veterans.

For more stories like these, subscribe to the Homeless Programs Office newsletter to receive monthly updates about programs and supportive services for Veterans experiencing or at risk of homelessness.

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