At one of two weekly orientations yesterday for homeless Veterans seeking housing assistance in Miami, two men somewhat angrily questioned why we followed an overview of Operation Sacred Trust (“OST”) with a relationship skills training exercise designed to boost individual and family resiliency.
Having helped end and prevent homelessness for more than 1,500 south Florida Veterans and their family members over the past 18 months, their questions were neither unusual nor unexpected. Veterans – and others – sleeping in the streets, cars, parks and other places not meant for human habitation are understandably more often narrowly concerned with how OST can help them get safe, stable affordable housing now and little else.
After respectfully listening to their concerns, along with more than a dozen other participants at the program orientation, I let the men know that the learning opportunity was an invitation that they could accept or decline. Their decision wouldn’t effect our commitment to helping end homelessness in their lives.
With more time, I would have preferred to address their concerns with a much better explanation of why the combination of evidence-based relationship skills training and help accessing permanent housing is about giving them the best chance of preventing the likelihood that they will become homeless again. I would have liked to explain why the exercises — skills training that once cost thousands of dollars to learn — is about creating a foundation in which the new dreams they most cherish have a chance to come true.
Relationship breakdown is a precipitating factor for the far, far majority of Veterans who become homeless. That’s not just about relationships with loved ones, but also about what happens in their relationships at work, with neighbors, family near and far, and, at a deeper level, with themselves.
For veterans in particular, so many of whom have spent years learning to bottle up emotions and communication styles that may work in the military but are unlikely to be helpful when it comes to other relationships, evidence-based relationship skills-training helps them be best prepared for the mission of life, love, family, and civilian work post-military service. Experience has shown it can be as vital to making a long-term contribution to their lives as the range of other benefits and assistance provided by programs such as Operation Sacred Trust.
For Veterans, first and foremost, that often means understanding that bottled-up painful emotions will eventually bury the ability to feel love, tenderness, joy and develop meaningful connections with loved ones. When painful feelings are leaking through sarcasm, threatening, blaming, withholding, withdrawing, and similar behaviors, the possibilities for meeting our human needs for bonding (the combination of emotional and physical closeness that is a biological need from birth) are virtually nil. That’s equally the case when it comes to meeting the needs of those children, spouses and others who face significant, often lifelong consequences if their own bonding needs go unmet.
At the extreme, which is not atypical among communities who have experienced traumatic events without a safe, constructive, practical outlet to relieve feelings of pain, fear and anguish, when those feelings reach a point in which they either explode through abuse or violence towards others (usually those closest) or implode with increased potential for abuse or violence towards themselves, the likelihood that they can or will sustain stability in their lives virtually disintegrates.
Safe, stable, affordable housing is undoubtedly vital to ending homelessness for America’s veterans. Long-term success, however, is deeply connected to ensuring those who have served America are able to access usable, practical, evidence-based skills that will help them sustain those benefits.
Seth D. Eisenberg is President/CEO of the nonprofit PAIRS Foundation in Hollywood, Florida and program manager for Operation Sacred Trust, a VA funded initiative to end homelessness for America’s Veteran families.