Not left out in the cold alone

Louise Oleson
DLJ editor North Dakota
Members of the Spirit Lake Riders MC and a few of the homeless veterans they have helped through the years gathered in Devils Lake's Roosevelt Park for a special event in 2016.

In 2010,  EllenMcKinnonworkedat theLake Region Human Service Center, helping families throughout the Lake Region deal with flooding through Project Renew, she became aware of work being done through theSalvation Armythat helpedhomeless veterans in need of services.

In fact, it was her boss at LRHSC who drew her attention to theVA grant program that was initiated as part of, then President Obamas declaration to end Veteran homelessness by 2015.

So inOct 2010she made themove to the Salvation Army, who was the non-profit grant service provider for the program known as Supportive Services for Veteran Families (SSVF). The Veterans Administration sets the rules and perimeters for implementation of Services. In May 2015, the service provider changed toCommunity Action Partnership of ND, which has offices in all 8 Regions of North Dakota and is better able to assist veterans across the state.The local office is Dakota Prairie Community Action Agency.

Now in her tenth year with SSVF sheknows that Community Action has been able tohelp hundreds of veteran families experiencing homelessness. The VA sets grant goals, which are easily met each year and after 10 years, the SSVF program has assisted thousands of veterans across North Dakota.

This program makes it possible to access resources throughout the community, the state and, yes, nationwide.

First priority for each veteran and their family is housing.McKinnonsaid that after verifying veteran status, SSVF follows HUD’s HousingFirst model. Housing First is an approach to quickly and successfully connect individuals and families experiencing homelessness to permanent housing without preconditions and barriers to entry, such as sobriety, treatment or service participation requirements. Supportive services are offered to maximize housing stability and prevent returns to homelessness as opposed to addressing predetermined treatment goals prior to permanent housing entry. Housing First emerged as an alternative to the linear approach in which people experiencing homelessness were required to first participate in and graduate from short-term residential and treatment programs before obtaining permanent housing. In the linear approach, permanent housing was offered only after a person experiencing homelessness could demonstrate that they were “ready” for housing. 

Because of a lack of safe, affordable housing in this Region,  good communication with landlords is paramount as we deal with security deposits, rent, household needs, educational needs, and essential services.”

McKinnon says the toughest cases for her arethe Veteranswho lose their spouse and seem to simply wander away, lost, grieving and not knowing what to do. There are often health issues, P.T.S.D., suicide ideationand family conflict and because manyare aging, homelessand hopeless, theysometimes get trapped in a vicious circle they can’t get out of by themselves.

    McKinnon credits The Devils Lake community, its businesses, schools, churches, 4-H groups, individual families and civic and military groups for the continuing success of the veterans placed in our community.  No matter what the need has been or how important it may seem to some, the people of Devils Lake  always step up to offer solutions and assistance forthe homelessveterans who somehow “fall through the cracks” of more restrictive Social Service programs or who either can’t orwon’t accept the helpthat SSVF canprovide.

  Yes, Devils Lake, North Dakota has a homeless population who live in the rough, outdoors, even in the bitter North Dakota winters. Some of those individuals have been identified and some have been located.Outreach is a critical tool that, over time, builds trust with veterans, many of whom are from the Vietnam era and who want little or nothing to do with theVA or therest of the world. Most have lived apart from humanity since theirviolent return to the USA.

 Thankfully, our region has many groups who are dedicated to helping veterans. One such group are the Spirit Lake Riders Motorcycle Club - a family-oriented group of North Dakota motorcycle enthusiasts that patch both men and women riders.In 2012 the Spirit Lake Riders “adopted” the cause of homeless veterans in North Dakota. Each Memorial Day weekend they would hold fun runs and motorcycle rodeos wherethey collect cash donationsfrom contestants and thatcash goes directlyto help provide warm clothing, sleeping bags, food, and other essentials. Throughout the year they host other fundraising events, like chili cook offs,spaghetti feedsand silent auctionsto provide additional resources for our homeless veterans. Another motorcycle club, the Combat Veterans Motorcycle Association is a group of“Vets helping vets” and havepaid for funerals and provided ramps for disabled Veterans in Devils Lake. 

  The number of chronically homeless vets living outdoors has gone down over the years; some havereceived help and successfullymoved into housing, some have moved on and some have passed away. - Nobody really knows how many are really out there, butMcKinnonis always hoping to help more. She says she is alwaysoffering outreach, listening, educating and learning; reaching out whenever she can to identify someone who may need the services of SSVF or Community Action.

“It never slows down,” she says.The process is to keep informed and to keep looking. The Hope is that one day, we will not have to.