TOWN OF ROCK
Tom Kimball served four years of active duty starting in 1954 and four years in the reserves as a Navy corpsman.
Today, the 83-year-old lives in a dormitory setting at a former nursing home between Janesville and Beloit in the Housing 4 Our Vets program.
Kimball would not discuss how he became homeless about five years ago. He’s in the facility now for the second time but feels comfortable about his plans to move to Wausau and take care of himself.
He wasn’t homeless in the way people often think of homeless men: destitute and sleeping under bridges.
In fact, it’s rare for that kind of homeless veteran to stay at the facility, part of the former Caravilla Nursing Home at 203 W. Sunny Lane, officials said.
Kimball is getting the help he needs, but the nation still has homeless veterans, nearly 50,000 as of 2015, with Wisconsin accounting for 520 of those, according to the Veterans Administration.
Why can’t we end homelessness, at least for our military veterans? A look at Housing 4 Our Vets offers some clues.
For starters, the 48-bed facility always has about 12 openings, officials said.
A woman showed up at the facility last week, crying. Her Marine-veteran son needed help.
Rock Valley Director Angel Eggers said she doesn’t know how the woman knew about the facility, but she’s glad there’s room for him.
More often, Eggers runs into people who didn’t know the Housing 4 Our Vets program exists.
“It has been a struggle getting the word out,” Eggers said, speculating that more homeless vets might apply if they knew about it.
Some veterans don’t think of themselves as veterans, Eggers said. Some don’t know they qualify for a wide range of VA benefits.
“We’ve had guys who could’ve had benefits for years but never knew,” she said.
Eggers gave the mother of the Marine veteran an application form and put her in touch with people who would help her son fill it out.
The Veterans Administration must approve the application, usually in five to seven days. Eggers said this case sounded promising.
Housing 4 Our Veterans takes in male veterans for a maximum of two years from parts of four states.
The program at the former Caravilla Nursing Home is a contractor for the VA, which runs the federal government’s effort to end veteran homelessness.
The local program forbids the use of drugs or alcohol, one of the reasons some homeless won’t go there, said Julie Lenzendorf, program administrator.
“I’ve heard, ‘I’m a grown man. I don’t want to quit drinking,’” Lenzendorf said.
Staff members understand that recovering from addiction means relapses, but men can be ejected from the program if they don’t take advantage of the treatment provided and continue to return to the facility drunk or drugged.
Others don’t want to live with a roommate, another program requirement.
For those who go through the program, the success rate exceeds the VA’s goal of 65 percent, Eggers said.
The VA defines success as a discharge into independent, permanent housing, but some veterans stay for a time with family before getting their own apartments, or they go to a long-term care facility, so those are not registered as successes, Eggers said.
Very few exit the facility and become homeless again, Lenzendorf said.
“We do everything we can (to prevent that),” Eggers added.
Services the local program provides are critical to success, said Eggers.
A key service is drug/alcohol counseling. The program has a high population of recovering substance abusers.
Residents can also get help for mental health problems such as post-traumatic stress and housing/employment counseling.
“The guys we see have pretty complex needs. That’s why I’m thrilled with the VA, that they give these guys two years (to work on their problems),” Eggers said.
Homeless to helper
George Kearn was the first veteran to use the facility when it opened in 2011.
Kearn now is assistant manager at Full Circle Furnishings, an offshoot of the homeless-vets program. All profits support the program. It’s a job he loves.
Kearn’s own homelessness was brief. He was getting a divorce and needed a place to stay in 2011. The VA pointed him to the new program. He did so well he was hired to help run the place and stayed for nearly two years.
The Navy veteran, 73, served in Vietnam as a radio operator on a high-speed amphibious transport that dropped off underwater demolition specialists on Vietnamese shores.
Kearn thinks the homeless program is needed, especially to help veterans transition to civilian life.
But he believes some veterans use the system for housing when they could provide for themselves.
Housing 4 Our Vets is in two wings of the former nursing home complex.
The veterans and former prisoners have different meal times and gym times, but they can encounter each other in the halls or grounds. One thing the program is not is an emergency shelter. Veterans must apply and be accepted under guidelines dictated by the Veterans Administration.
The veterans program employs a manager, two case workers, one intake workers/substance abuse counselor, a full-time staff assistant and several part-time assistants.
It will cost an estimated $726,355 to run this year, most of that coming from the Veterans Administration, Eggers said.
A VA social worker spends at least one day a week at Rock Valley.
Residents who have income, such as from jobs or pensions, must pay 30 percent of their income in rent, not to exceed $224 a month.
To gain entry, residents must be adult males with a non-dishonorable discharge from the military. They must be able to take care of their daily-living needs; the facility does not provide nursing-home-style assistance.
They must prove they are sober, and drug tests and breathalyzer tests are administered randomly.
The veterans section includes a common room, where residents can watch TV, play cards or host visitors.
Visitors are not allowed in the rooms, which are small but include full baths and kitchenettes.
A place of his own
The program features a mandatory life-skills course.
Kimball and another current resident, Michael Cerda, said they don’t like the requirement that they take life skills training because they know how to brush their teeth, take a shower and otherwise care for themselves.
Cerda, 32, a former gunner’s mate in the Navy, arrived at Rock Valley last year. He became homeless when he was living with family, and problems developed.
Cerda works a second-shift manufacturing job in Delavan and owns his own car.
Cerda doesn’t like the curfew of 10 p.m. on weekdays and midnight on weekends, but he’s willing to suffer the annoyances.
He plans to use his full two years so he can be sure he has enough money saved to rent an apartment and be successful, he said.
Cerda likes the food and can order a sack lunch to take to work. Residents are taken on field trips, such as Milwaukee Brewers games and bowling, and cookouts are held on the grounds.
Local groups provide cookies and other snacks, especially during the holidays, he said.
Cerda had a roommate who was an alcoholic and was found outside almost frozen to death, he said.
Residents are encouraged to have hobbies. Cerda paints and modifies miniature soldiers and plays war games with them.
Rock Valley is expanding its programming for veterans. It’s renovating a vacant wing of the old nursing home for a 23-bed transitional living facility scheduled to open in May.
Graduates of Housing 4 Our Veterans who can’t find housing after two years will be able to apply to move to the new wing, where they’ll have a room of their own at low rents for up to three years.
Work on the gutted wing has been slow in part because officials want to pay for it without a loan. That will mean more fundraising, Eggers said.
A different option
President Barack Obama’s administration set out to fix the problem of veterans homelessness in 2010 by revamping the VA’s programming, and it yielded some results, according to the VA website.
The VA says homelessness between 2010 and 2013, as measured by the number of homeless veterans on a single night in January, dropped from 76,329 to 57,849.
The revamped program included collaborating with community-based treatment and supportive services, such as the one at Rock Valley. It also started a new program that took a radically different approach.
The new program is called Housing First. It gives veterans vouchers to pay for apartments without requiring that they stay off alcohol or drugs or complete treatment before getting housing.
Housing First recipients do get help for mental health, substance abuse and other needs, but that comes after they have a roof over their heads.
Eggers doesn’t see how that will work, and she wouldn’t want to use it at Rock Valley, but it’s still a part of the VA’s approach.
The jury appears to be out on Housing First, which also is being used for non-veterans in programs around the country.
‘Everybody gets along’
Kimball likes his room and the food. He said he gets plenty of exercise in the gym, and he has made friends.
Residents must clean windows and floors and do other chores, and they must keep their own rooms tidy.
“We’ve all been through it at one time, when we were in the service, so it’s nothing new to us,” he said.
Smoking is allowed in designated areas.
“They’re very strict about that,” Kimball said.
Women are not allowed in the rooms, and there’s no fighting, although “everybody gets along pretty well. A few problems here and there, but that comes with the territory.”
Kimball said residents don’t ask each other how they got there, but he know of many who come from the street.
Residents are allowed to sign themselves out of the facility overnight, “as long as you’ve been behaving yourself,” Kimball said.
Sheriff’s deputies are called for fighting or drunken driving, Kimball said, but he’s seen that happen only three times, and he feels safe.
“It’s a well-run, peaceful place,” he said. “It’s really a haven for us.”