They protected our home, shouldn't we protect theirs?
Statistically, individuals who have served in the armed forces are significantly more likely to face homelessness than other Americans.
While veterans only make up approximately 7 percent of the general population, they comprise nearly 13 percent of all homeless adults in the United States.
According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, this means an estimated 62,619 veterans are homeless on any given night. The Department of Veterans Affairs places that number much higher, estimating nearly 300,000 veterans are homeless on any given night.
This isn't an exclusively urban issue either.
Nearly one-third of homeless veterans, an estimated 32 percent, are found in non-urban environments. In other words, one-in-three homeless veterans lives in places like Warren County, Pa., or Chautauqua County.
Far more veterans are facing the prospect of homelessness. According to the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans, approximately 1.4 million additional veterans are at risk of becoming homeless.
These veterans exist, right here, in northwestern Pennsylvania and D'Anna Merritt, who has been homeless and whose mother is a veteran, decided it was time to do something about it.
Merritt knows firsthand there is a need for these programs in this region; she, her daughter and her mother have benefited from programs through Chautauqua Opportunities for Development Inc. Afterward, she wanted to find a way to extend the project to Warren County.
"I have gone around the community trying to find some sort of outreach resources and there's not really much out there," Merritt said. "There is a great social need, but the community doesn't see it. I contacted a number of agencies that said there was no need. 'There is no problem here.'"
Eventually, she found Julia Roque, community service director with the Warren-Forest Economic Opportunity Council.
"She benefited so much that she wanted to share it with other veterans," Roque said of Merritt.
Roque and Fred Barney, Chautauqua Opportunities housing service manager, teamed to extend the program from Chautauqua County to Pennsylvania. After verifying the Economic Opportunity Council could work in conjunction with another state the organization was commissioned to bring the Veterans Homeless Assistance Program to Warren and Erie counties.
"We've encountered a lot of vets," Roque said. "A lot of people aren't aware there are veterans here facing homelessness. It's really an embarrassment that veterans are facing homelessness after what they've done. This program is exclusively for them. In a way, it's to honor them for what they've done."
The program is open to veterans facing homelessness with income below 50 percent of the median income, which was $23,147 for an individual and $42,167 for a household according to 2010 census data.
According to Roque, Warren and Erie County veterans who are homeless or facing eviction can contact her through the Economic Opportunity Council at 814-726-2400 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The program will help with utility, mortgage, rent or other payments to aid veterans in staying in their homes or moving expenses for those currently homeless, including deposits and initial rent.
"We'll help them get caught up," Roque said. "Warren-Forest EOC will also help guide them toward other programs that can help them."
That willingness to guide individuals to other programs that can help is something Merritt says is especially important.
"Rather than competing for these grant dollars, these agencies need to come together and work to confront this social problem," Merritt said. "I, myself, have experienced this. I went and received vouchers to stay in a hotel, but I only could get two vouchers. People can stay with family or friends, but it's a drain on their resources. I wanted to do something to create change. Our veterans shouldn't be in this position and they shouldn't be ashamed. They deserve help."
The Economic Opportunity Council, according Roque and Merritt, is also offering "homelessness kits" at the Faith Inn site on Pennsylvania Avenue, in Warren.
The kits include a handful of basic items aimed at aiding those without a place to stay.
"It's for literally homeless people," Roque said. "To help them weather through the night."
The kits include toiletries, socks, a first aid kit and other items that may not be readily available to those without a place to call home. The kits come in a multi-purpose bag.
"There's tons of them," Merritt noted by way of encouraging those in need to utilize the kits.
The most effective way to combat the issue, the two agreed, was awareness the problem existed in Warren County and the community support that comes with acknowledging that.
"It's gotta change," Roques said. "People need to be aware of it. Even if you don't need it (program help), if you're aware, you need to let your neighbors know. If you have relatives who are veterans, let them know. People need to make the right referrals.
"If you're doing very well, this can be a way to give back. This is the Christian thing to do. Help others. Don't judge them. The veterans put their lives on the line for you."
"When I was homeless," Merritt added. "I had people yell at me. What people need is help. My question is, where is community? What happened to the idea of community?"