STEVE LEWIS/Durango Herald
Jimmie Nez Jr. had jumped around to a few different jobs during his four years in Durango, but found himself looking for work when a seasonal job with a traffic company ended in spring.
Nez, a veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps, reached out to the Southwest Colorado Workforce Center. There, Gabe Torres, the disabled veteran outreach coordinator, helped get Nez’s application priority review among some employers, paid for safety classes and bought him equipment that he eventually needed when he was hired by GCC Energy, which owns the King Coal II mine near Hesperus.
Nez said he probably wouldn’t have gotten the job without the help.
“They got me squared away,” Nez said. “It’s hard work, but it is good money, and I love the job.”
But employment is only one piece of the puzzle to help veterans find stability here. Another fundamental piece is housing.
To this end, three grants awarded to Volunteers of America and Housing Solutions this summer are helping veterans by connecting them to resources in the community, with a primary focus on stable, affordable housing.
The need for more housing resources for veterans in the area is visible from several angles, though it’s hard to know exactly how many of the almost 4,400 veterans in the county are homeless.
Rich Schleeter, La Plata County’s veterans service officer, calculated that two years ago, 21 percent of the veterans seeking benefits at the veterans service office were very low income.
And between 70 and 80 adults who seek shelter at the Durango Community Shelter each year are veterans, which works out to more than 15 percent of the shelter’s guests, said Sarada Leavenworth, division director for Volunteers of America, which runs the shelter.
When veterans don’t have a roof over their heads, it makes it even more difficult to tackle other issues such as employment, medical needs or child care, Leavenworth said.
“If our veterans don’t have a stable and safe place to live, all of these other barriers come up right away,” she said. “With their basic needs met, then people can really blossom and pursue other goals like finding better employment and child care.”
Connecting vets with resources
Volunteers of America’s Durango division can take a two-pronged approach to addressing veteran homelessness because of two different grants from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
The first program is aimed at veterans experiencing homelessness. The Department of Veterans Affairs will fund eight beds at the Durango Community Shelter as well as a case manager dedicated to helping them achieve self-sufficiency.
Another $160,000 one-year grant serves veterans and veteran families who are at risk of being homeless or have recently become homeless. One full-time case manager and one part-time employment specialist work with clients to provide anything that helps them find and keep affordable housing.
That may mean helping with rent, child care or access to their full benefits. The education and employment specialist will help veterans prepare for and conduct job searches or connect with educational opportunities.
Added to the mix is a $43,000 grant awarded to Housing Solutions for the Southwest by the Colorado Department of Military and Veterans Affairs. The grant allows Housing Solutions to give one-time assistance equal to about one month’s rent to veterans in the five southwestern Colorado counties the nonprofit serves, said Elizabeth Salkind, executive director. The money is well-suited to aid veterans receiving help through the Volunteers of America grant programs.
A rural focus
Salkind said she doesn’t think it is a coincidence that three grants focused on veterans services were awarded to Durango organizations within three months of each other.
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs identified rural areas as a place where gaps exist in services and under the Obama administration, the department made a goal to end homelessness among veterans by 2015.
Meanwhile, Durango nonprofits, including Housing Solutions and Volunteers of America, have together decided to make a more concerted effort toward addressing veteran homelessness, said Jennifer Lopez, executive director of Regional Housing Alliance. The housing alliance is also working on the issue with $75,000 in grant money from BP that will be used to build housing capacity for special-needs populations and veterans.
Leavenworth said the VA is “choosing to try our community out in terms of what we can accomplish,” she said. If service providers are successful, this likely will lead to more support in the future, Leavenworth said.
It’s necessary to establish programs that address veterans specifically because of their unique issues, officials said.
Many veterans, especially those who fought in Vietnam, distrust the system meant to help them, said Craig McCormack, the veteran advocate with the Supportive Services for Veteran Families program.
Post-traumatic stress disorder also is a major obstacle, said Torres, at the Colorado Workforce Center. According to the VA, 11 percent to 20 percent of veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and 30 percent of Vietnam War veterans suffer from PTSD.
Torres said he sees a lot more amputees from today’s wars because of weaponry such as projectiles and roadside bombs.
Several programs, including the Volunteers of America, recruited veterans to head their veteran outreach efforts in order to better connect with and relate to these perspectives. Torres served 20 years as a U.S. Navy submariner and McCormack served for five years with the U.S. Army.
“Craig understands the nuances of what is needed,” Leavenworth said.
SHAUN STANLEY/Durango Herald file photo