Instead of waiting for homeless veterans to walk through the doors of the Veterans Affairs offices on River Street, Bryan Bumgarner, an outreach specialist for the homeless veteran program, is bringing services to them.
Bumgarner is part of a new partnership that began March 7 between Veterans Affairs and the Boise Public Library. Every Monday morning, Bumgarner will be available to meet with homeless veterans in a private room at the library’s main branch Downtown.
Bumgarner’s goal is to connect as many homeless veterans as possible to much-needed services, including medical care and housing assistance through the VA. On his first morning, he met with three homeless veterans. It was a quiet start, but a hopeful one.
In many cases, homeless veterans are not aware that help is available. Sometimes, said Bumgarner, veterans’ pride keeps them from asking for help. The new low-key, informal outreach at the library is meant to “lower the bar for accessibility,” he said.
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“Veterans have misconceptions. That they have to be combat vets, or have to have served for 20 years to be eligible for benefits,” he said.
He tells the story of one Boise veteran he helped who was living in his car and paying $400 a month for prescription medication. The veterans didn’t realize he was eligible for medical care through the VA.
“We’ve definitely been able to make improvements for folks,” said Bumgarner, son of a Vietnam veteran who was wounded in combat.
When I see my dad getting good care through the VA, I want to make sure that others who served like him get the same kind of care.
Bryan Bumgarner, homeless veteran outreach
Even if Bumgarner finds veterans who are not eligible for VA benefits, he can help get them and their families connected to other services such as the Supportive Services for Veterans Families, a program at El-Ada Community Action Partnership,
FIRST STEP IS FINDING THEM
The new program seeks to build on similar outreach efforts to a population that can be difficult to reach. Homeless veterans might not have phones or regular schedules. Bumgarner frequently visited Cooper Court, the camp near Interfaith Sanctuary that was broken up in December. He often visits Corpus Christi Day Shelter to find veterans as well as River of Life, the Boise Rescue Mission shelter across the street from his office.
“I think this kind of outreach is a great idea. Anything the VA can do to make contact and help veterans take advantage of the benefits they’ve earned,” said Bill Roscoe, president and CEO of the Boise Rescue Mission.
The low-key library approach is a good one for veterans who frequently have a hard time asking for help, or who may have negative ideas about the VA, said Roscoe. That’s often an issue for veterans from the Vietnam era.
Basically, if the VA calls and says there’s an opportunity to help veterans, we’re happy to do what we can.
William Nation, manager at the Boise Public Library’s main branch
“Anyone who knows about VA programs in the 1970s knows that they were not user-friendly. Veterans had a lot of mistrust. They didn’t want anything to do with the VA or the government,” Roscoe said.
A Vietnam veteran himself, Roscoe said he’s glad the Rescue Mission, the VA and other local programs — such as a specialty court focused on treatment and alternative sentencing — are working well together. Boise Rescue Mission’s program for veterans now has 25 formerly homeless veterans enrolled and another 30 on the waiting list, he said.
Bumgarner often stopped by the library, a common place for homeless people to spend the day. Partnering with the library was a natural next step.
“The VA reached out to us and said they thought they could potentially meet at the library and establish some new connections. Basically, if the VA calls and says there’s an opportunity to help veterans, we’re happy to do what we can,” said William Nation, manager at the Boise Public Library’s main branch.
This step into social services is in line with other programs that stretch the library’s mission beyond books, including workshops that offer legal advice for walk-in clients and help for people filling out their tax forms, Nation said.
“The through line is that libraries have a tradition of providing tax forms, public documents, other government information,” he said. “Now, the idea that we can take it a step further and actually help someone from the VA connect directly to a client builds on that tradition.”
Bumgarner said the new library program will allow him to start keeping formal count of the numbers of homeless veterans he’s able to connect to services. The process up until this point has been more informal.
“I do want to make sure that it’s a good use of our time,” he said.
In any case, it’s a personal mission for him.
“My dad was drafted and wounded in 1968 in Vietnam. That still affects him to this day. It affects the whole family,” Bumgarner said. “I keep that in mind whenever I interact with veterans now. When I see my dad getting good care through the VA, I want to make sure that others who served like him get the same kind of care.”
Update: Homeless veterans in Idaho
How many homeless veterans are there in the Gem State?
The count by Point In Time, the Idaho Housing and Finance-led project that sends volunteers out into the streets each year to count the number of homeless people living in Idaho communities.
Idaho Housing and Finance Association has not yet released the number of homeless veterans from the 2016 count. But in 2015, the count found 249 homeless veterans living in Idaho.
How many are getting help?
The departments of Veterans Affairs and Housing and Urban Development run a supplemental housing program for homeless veterans that’s the largest homeless veteran housing program in the country. Known as HUD-VASH, it currently provides 206 housing vouchers for homeless veterans in Boise, Twin Falls and the Nampa/Caldwell area.
Right now, formerly homeless veterans are using 162 of those vouchers and living in stable housing. Twenty-eight homeless veterans have vouchers in hand, but cannot find affordable apartments. Another 16 homeless veterans are in the process of applying for vouchers and will soon be looking for apartments.
Low vacancy rates and high rents in the Boise area are hurdles for veterans transitioning out of homelessness, said Anna Johnson-Whitehead, health care for homeless veterans program manager at the Boise Veterans Affairs Medical Center. Landlords are also wary of renting to homeless men and women because of bad credit, substance abuse issues, criminal records and more, said Johnson-Whitehead. The HUD-VASH program provides case workers for veterans and safeguards for landlords. Still, stigma persists, she said.
The VA’s Health Care for Homeless Veterans office is seeking landlords who are interested in renting apartments to veterans. Call 208-422-1039 for more information.
Homeless veteran outreach at Boise Public Library
Meet Bryan Bumgarner on Mondays from 10:30 a.m. to noon in the Simplot Room on the first floor of the Main Library, 715 S. Capitol Blvd. in Boise. Call the library for more information at 208-972-8255.
April 9: Veterans’ Stand Down in Canyon County
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs hosts a Stand Down for homeless and low-income veterans beginning at 9 a.m. on Saturday, April 9 at the Lighthouse Rescue Mission, 304 16th Ave. North in Nampa.
Organizer John Poarch said veterans in need will be able to get a variety of services, including a hot lunch, food boxes, medical screenings provided by Terry Reilly health services, hygiene items, clothing, on-the-spot massages, dental and vision screening, smoking cessation information, HIV and other health screenings, and veterinary services including some vaccinations and food for pets. The Stand Down will also offer tax and legal advice, housing information and an array of booths staffed by local service agencies.
This will be the second Stand Down held in Nampa, said Poarch. Last year’s event only drew about 20 veterans. He’s hoping more will take part this year. The VA can provide transportation to the Stand Down for veterans in need. For details, call Poarch at 208-422-1000, ext. 7423.
If possible, veterans attending the Stand Down should bring anything that can prove their veteran status, a Veterans Affairs ID or discharge papers. Staffers will also be on hand to look up veterans names in the system. An honorable discharge is not a requirement to receive help.
“Any veteran is welcome,” said Poarch.
A Stand Down also takes place every fall in Boise. The term “stand down” means relaxing after being in a state of alert.