Craftsmen are unloading long wooden planks from a metallic teardrop trailer as Ken Mac watches from opposite Grant Street. “I could sleep in something like that,” he says of the trailer, “but I’d have to have a job first.”
Every Friday at 10 am, veterans like Mac hoping to get back on their feet, gather over a donated breakfast buffet at Westside Apostolic Church to meet with Veterans Administration (VA) counselors and volunteers. Through the Housing and Urban Development — Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing (HUD-VASH) program, homeless veterans can pursue a voucher to secure transitional or even long-term housing.
For the other six days and seven nights of the week, Reagan Clark, a Marine Corps veteran who volunteers with local service organizations, plans to make homelessness less demoralizing for those in search of stability. “Eugene needs a legitimate veterans camp,” he says, “where social services can coalesce and help lift these guys up.”
Inside the church sanctuary, Clark’s gears are turning. Last winter, he had an opportunity, through a Disabled American Veterans scholarship, to attend the Veteran’s Sustainable Agriculture Training (VSAT) program at California State University, San Marcos. The six-week certification, which he calls “the future of sustainable farming,” is something he thinks could help many veterans find income and thus qualify for a HUD voucher. Funding for VSAT is slim though, and it took great luck for him to be selected. In the short term, Clark is directing those in need to more established services.
St. Vincent de Paul of Lane County has managed to contribute significantly through its Veterans in Progress (VIP) program, funded by a U.S. Labor Department grant. “Our purpose is to help veterans who are homeless, or at risk of homelessness, to find work,” says program director Karen Fleener-Gould, who attends the VASH meetings. “We do that through short-term training or certification.” Now in its fourth year, VIP has placed 300 local veterans with employers. Fleener-Gould has expressed an interest in VSAT, but had to put it on the back burner in light of the government shutdown.
Though the application process for VASH has become substantially more inviting in recent years, many willing participants face serious barriers to employment, which the VA and de Paul are working to alleviate. “A veteran comes to us, most often, so beat up,” Fleener-Gould says. “They don’t have an ID or a birth certificate, and no employer can hire them.” Additionally, some veterans need a discharge upgrade, have a felony record to deal with or are physically/emotionally compromised from a service-connected disability.
Mac, a former Army medic during the Panama/Grenada era, who seems not to be socially overwhelmed by the meeting or dismayed by the application process, is the exception — not the rule. “They don’t like authority figures,” says Clark, and because of that, “You can’t push paperwork down their throats.” Still, he says, you have to start somewhere. “It’s more like, ‘Do you need a lift to get food?’ or ‘Here are some socks.’”