More homeless veterans find housing

U.S. Army veteran Mary Sonneborn, 58, seated on her motorized wheelchair, describes how her fellow veteran residents of St. Martin’s Place in downtown Grand Junction gathered for Thanksgiving dinner last year in an open space between the apartment buildings. Grand Valley Catholic Outreach built the complex last year. “I’ve gotten involved,” Sonneborn said. “I don’t have time to be lonely or depressed. I’m busy.”

For years, Mary Sonneborn couch surfed at a friend’s home, venturing out only to go to a doctor’s appointment. When her friend was forced to sell the home, Sonneborn, an affable 58-year-old U.S. Army veteran, found herself at a crossroads. She had officially been homeless for five years and wasn’t fond of living in her car, a stint she tried briefly.

“I guess I just used up all my resources,” Sonneborn said recently, sitting outside in her electric-powered wheelchair while bundled up against the cold on a bright afternoon.

For a little more than a year now, Sonneborn thinks she may have found her forever home at St. Martin’s Place, a housing complex for military veterans built by Grand Valley Catholic Outreach.

Efforts such as the tidy, brick, single-bedroom apartments built last year on the corner of Third Street and Pitkin Avenue are contributing to an encouraging nationwide trend: More homeless veterans are finding homes.

According to a study by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs released in December, the number of homeless veterans has decreased by 17.2 percent since 2009.

Veterans made up nearly 10 percent of all homeless adults last year. An estimated 63,000 people were counted as homeless during a nationwide survey conducted in January 2012.

Indeed, some of those successes have been realized in Grand Junction.

In the past four years, Grand Junction’s military veterans have received 140 veterans’ housing vouchers, said Lisa Strauss, homeless program coordinator for the Grand Junction Veterans’ Affairs Medical Center. Before Strauss started in the position, Grand Junction did not receive any of the federally distributed vouchers. The incentives are in line with the VA’s stated goal of ending veteran homelessness by 2015.

Vouchers allow qualifying veterans to pay only 30 percent of their gross income toward housing. Another grant through Rocky Mountain Human Services helps veterans secure funds to meet a security deposit, often the largest obstacle for homeless veterans to secure housing, Strauss said.

“The majority of those veterans are doing well,” she said of vets who have been helped with housing.

It’s unclear how many veterans are homeless in the Grand Valley, Strauss said.

Local homeless surveys historically haven’t distinguished between homeless veterans and other homeless folks. Surveys slated for later this month will ask that question, she said.

An estimated 150 veterans were homeless about four years ago when Strauss started in her role.

Along with vouchers, the Department of Veterans Affairs funds positions for case managers to monitor veterans’ progress. Housing officials have learned that simply offering a roof overhead won’t solve long-standing problems, which may include alcoholism and drug abuse, mental health issues and finding employment.

Having a case manager to keep tabs on her has helped Sonneborn, she said.

Thanks to the involvement of a number of local agencies, including programs offered by the VA, Sonneborn has been immersed in a host of activities and delighted to discover a social life she never thought possible.

A creative writing class led to reading her poetry aloud to an audience. She bowls, swims, plays dominoes, and soon — a program manager tells her — she’ll learn shuffleboard.

“I’ve gotten involved,” she said proudly. “I’ve had to set some goals. I don’t have time to be lonely or depressed. I’m busy.”

In general, Sonneborn said she feels people are becoming more accepting of helping veterans get back on their feet. Most of the veterans at St. Martin’s Place are from the “Vietnam era,” she said.

Sonneborn drove dump trucks for the Army. She was enlisted from 1973 to 1979.

“It’s a totally different atmosphere than it was 25, 30 years ago,” she said.

“I think people are getting more realistic and being more practical with (veterans’) one-on-one situations. The whole movement to help people is expanded and seems more real.”


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