CLEVELAND — On any given night, the federal government estimates there are around 40,000 homeless veterans sleeping on the street or in tents and stairwells. Each and every one of them is entitled to the VA benefits they fought and bled for. As part of the Home for the Holidays initiative, the Cleveland VA, HUD and the Cleveland Metropolitan Housing Authority have increased their outreach efforts to connect homeless and distressed veterans with housing vouchers and VA benefits.
HUD’s VASH program, also known as VA Supportive Housing, combines HUD housing vouchers with supportive services from the VA. The goal of the program is get veterans off the street and into treatment and therapy. On Thursday, the Cleveland VA hosted dozens of local agencies and property owners to create a ‘one stop shop’ for veterans. CMHA and the VA provided veterans with transportation and other assistance so they could view apartments throughout the Cleveland area.
Veterans who have not joined the VASH program were also given the opportunity to do so.
“It’s a beautiful thing. There is no way any veteran in America -- and definitely in Cuyahoga County -- should be homeless,” said Larry Akins, a veteran of the US Army. “We have so many benefits, so many programs. There are so many people that are willing to help you.”
The efforts appear to be making some progress.
According to the VA’s most recent point-in-time homeless veteran count, the number of homeless veterans in Ohio has dropped more than 38% since 2011, including a 13% decline from 2017 to 2018.
Akins, a veteran of the first Gulf War, is emblematic of the VASH program’s success, he said. After returning home and raising his family, Akins became an addict, he said, eventually landing him in Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court on felony charges. He was sentenced to probation and was required to receive treatment at the VA for his addiction issues.
Akins then began to flourish.
He enrolled in a VA program that provided him a job in the VA system while he was receiving treatment, allowing him to save money to buy his own car and rent his own apartment. Akins’ treatment has gone so well that he’s received two job offers.
“Sometimes we have to keep ourselves in position for a blessing. I was happy that I was in the position when they called me to accept the job,” Akins said. “If I was out in the streets or out some where I shouldn’t have been or locked up in jail, all that would be for naught.”
Akins has now become a full-throated advocate for the program.
“They have helped me to the point where I could help myself,” Akins said. “With all these avenues you can take, you don’t have to be homeless.”