Fort Lauderdale, FL — He was awarded a Purple Heart and Silver Star for his heroic service in Vietnam. Years later, Richard Tilghman, armed with a .44 magnum and protected only by a single blanket, was struggling to sleep on a bench behind a deserted building.
Tilghman had become one of an estimated 37,000 veterans who experience homelessness in America each year. Those veterans are more than twice as likely to commit suicide, a statistic that inspires advocates nationwide to prioritize rapid, compassionate care to America’s former servicemen and women who spiral into homelessness.
The decorated Marine Corps veteran is just one of many personal stories shared with Congressman Charlie Crist during a visit to the Operation Sacred Trust Veterans Service Center in Fort Lauderdale this month. The U.S. Representative spent nearly two hours listening to the stories of Florida veterans who had overcome homelessness.
Trauma informed care at every point of contact
“Ending homelessness for veterans in our community, in any community, requires trauma informed care at every point of contact, and team members who can listen empathically to understand each veteran’s unique circumstances, goals, and aspirations,” said Operation Sacred Trust (OST) co-founder and CEO Seth Eisenberg. “The first step to building that understanding is to listen, just as our former Governor did for nearly two hours this afternoon,” Eisenberg said.
During his visit with formerly homeless veterans at the Operation Sacred Trust Supportive Services for Veteran Families (SSVF) service center in downtown Fort Lauderdale, the Congressman didn’t mention a single word about his track record, campaign, or the divisive politics of Washington. His visit focused singularly on hearing directly from Florida veterans about the direct impact of legislation long supported by Florida’s bi-partisan Congressional Delegation.
Army Veteran James LoBello shared what he called “systematic breakdowns” that led to him being evicted from a veteran housing program at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. He said he came close to dying and thanked VA’s local SSVF team for going to “incredible efforts” to keep him safe during the pandemic and eventually help him move into a new Carrfour Supportive Housing community in Wilton Manors. LoBello urged the congressman to insist professionals serving veterans are trauma informed and that rapid processes exist to call the highest level of attention to breakdowns that leave veterans’ lives at increased risk.
Firsthand stories that demonstrate impact of legislation
Stories such as those shared with Congressman Crist help policy-makers see the impact of legislation firsthand and develop greater empathy for their most vulnerable constituencies, said Juan Flores, a Marine Corps Veteran who directs Operation Sacred Trust’s veteran led Engagement team.
“This place is very, very important,” said an emotional Willie Askew, a Navy Veteran who lost his family, his house, and everything else after experiencing financial hardship. The former Sailor spoke of his ten year journey with Operation Sacred Trust learning to maintain independence and sustainability. “What they do, [Operation] Sacred Trust, they helped me get on my feet, and they showed me how to be sustainable,” the Navy Veteran told Congressman Crist.
An unexpected heart attack and stroke led Army Veteran Kevin Jones to lose his house, business, savings, and entire way of living. “Within 14 calendar days,” he said,” I went from sleeping on the streets to being in a two bed one bath house” as a result of assistance from the VA-funded SSVF program.
Veterans helping veterans
Several veteran employees at Operation Sacred Trust have personal experience with homelessness, including Maribel Zurita, a Navy Veteran who now serves as a Care Manager for other homeless and at-risk veterans. Zurita shared her experience as a widow separated from her one-year old daughter when she felt she might never escape the grasp of homelessness. “If it wasn’t for OST, not only would I still be in those unlivable conditions, I wouldn’t have been able to move back in with my daughter,” she said.
In calendar year 2021, OST assisted 1,160 veteran families in Miami-Dade and Broward counties and distributed $2.26 million in Temporary Financial Assistance to help prevent and end Veteran homelessness. While many organizations and shelters suspended services during the COVID-19 pandemic, OST remained committed to providing 24/7 care to Veterans in need, a resource that surprised several veterans at the time.
24/7 Engagement through COVID-19 Pandemic
“There is no way these people are going to be able to help,” thought Joshua Bass, an Army Veteran experiencing homelessness during the pandemic, “[But they helped by] really getting me in, and really taking care of me and everything…they did everything from ordering food through providing rides and making sure I was getting to and from jobs and appointments so I was able to change my life.”
“Everybody has to have goals,” Tilghman told Congressman Crist, “You got to give them ambition, you got to give them hope, you got to give them a cause. Because that’s what this country is built on.”
Collaborations deliver results for Veterans
One important aspect of giving hope to veterans is helping process benefits claims that many had given up on. This year, the agency took a new approach to pursuing VA benefits by collaborating with a local chapter of Disabled American Veterans (DAV).
Former VA Undersecretary Paul R. Lawrence, Ph.D., who joined the agency’s Board of Trustees this month, visited Operation Sacred Trust’s Fort Lauderdale Veteran Service Center to see the impact firsthand.
Retired Army Veteran Kevin Williams leads the agency’s benefits program, which includes a team of trained Veteran Service Officers who work in collaboration with the local DAV chapter. Williams said the collaboration has enabled the SSVF program to help Veterans process successful benefit applications in weeks instead of years.
The agency’s partnership with DAV recently resulted in more than $160,000 in new benefit awards for homeless Veterans served by the agency, Williams reported. “Veterans are getting rapid results and that’s changing lives,” he said.