In some of Florida’s most isolated areas, there are veterans living in tents, old vehicles and makeshift shelters they’ve built from scraps. Florida Veterans Mobile Service Center (MSC) is working to break their self-imposed isolation by bringing medical care and social support to the rural encampments where these homeless veterans live.
The 40-foot mobile service vehicle, owned and operated by Volunteers of America of Florida, is equipped with medical and dental exam rooms, dental X-ray equipment, medical supplies, medications, and advanced mobile technologies linked to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). Now in its 10th year, MSC provides homeless veterans with immediate needs such as food and clothing, as well as with physical and social support. Services include physical and dental exams, VA benefits eligibility verification, counseling, and assessments for housing, mental health, substance abuse, employment, educational and vocational needs.
“With MSC, we’re going to them and we’re able to reach out one-on-one,” said Ed Quill, chief administrative officer for Volunteers of America of Florida. “Most of these individuals are Vietnam era vets and many will tell you they were harassed and even spit on when they came back home. What happened postwar was an unfortunate comment on their military service. The reception they received when they came home has made them want nothing to do with the red tape of social services or hospitals. They’re not likely to reach out to the VA for help. They’ve felt rejected by society and they’ve withdrawn from it.”
The number of homeless veterans in Florida is estimated to be 17,500. According to the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans, an estimated 131,000 veterans in the United States are homeless on any given night and approximately twice that many are homeless over the course of a year. “In addition to the complex set of factors affecting all homelessness—extreme shortage of affordable housing, livable income and access to health care—a large number of displaced and at-risk veterans live with lingering effects of post-traumatic stress disorder and substance abuse, compounded by a lack of family and social support networks,” according to the Coalition’s website.
As MSC staff has built relationships with veterans, they’ve been able to reconnect them with area services in those locations.
“We maybe can’t get them to move out of the woods but we can help them access services near them and make a connection with providers that are in that area,” Quill said.
For veterans who want to change their circumstances, Volunteers of America of Florida also addresses the root causes of homelessness through its Housing, Health and Training, Education and Employment Services. Veterans can move into any of 10 transitional housing programs, located throughout the state. They are able to live there for up to two years and access assistance such as education, job training and placement. If they have problems such as substance abuse or other issues that need addressing, they also receive those services.
MSC’s services have extended beyond its original borders by reaching out to neighboring states that have experienced natural disasters. MSC has traveled to four major hurricanes in the last five years, Quill said, providing medical support and communication systems.
“After Katrina, the VA Gulf Coast Health Care System and Clinic in Mobile, Alabama, didn’t even know where their staff was and all their phones were out,” Quill said. “With our capabilities of satellite uplink, we can do just about any type of communication. We provided them with communications support and we also saw patients. MSC then moved on to Hammond, Louisiana, and performed triage and medical support there.”
As veterans return from Iraq and Afghanistan, many of them with physical disabilities, Quill said it’s important that intervention begins immediately. Quill said Volunteers of America of Florida is modifying its approach to outreach to specifically reach veterans from operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom.
“The more acute intervention we can provide now, the less likely there will be long-term issues,” he said. “As the problems become more entrenched, they are more difficult to deal with. We’ve seen the pain, and we don’t want to see the soldiers who are coming back now go down that same path.”
Grant funding from the VA’s Homeless Providers Grant and Per Diem Program supports both the mobile veterans’ outreach and transitional housing program.
For more information contact:
Volunteers of America of Florida
1205 E. 8th Avenue
Tampa, FL 33605
Tel: (813) 321-6945
Fax: (813) 287-8831
Back to: Winter 2010 Issue