BATH — The Homeless Veterans Program at the Bath VA Medical Center, along with community partners, would like to bring the public’s attention to the plight of homeless veterans living in the Southern Tier.

Being homeless in a rural area is very different from being homeless in an urban area.

To raise awareness, the VA is holding a series of "stand down" events to offer solutions to at risk veterans before they lose their homes. The next will be held in Elmira on Thursday, but services for veterans facing homelessness are available anywhere, anytime in the facility's service area.

VA community partners involved in social services, as well as veterans themselves often reach out for help, however, some are "too proud" to acknowledge that they need assistance, according to Donald Benelli, a homeless Veterans coordinator at the Bath VA. 

Many cases of homelessness are driven by a triumvirate of causes: a mental health or substance abuse situation, or a lack of economic opportunities that lead to an eviction.

As a result, homeless veterans often “couch surf” which means they go from home to home, to abandoned homes and to barns and rely on the generosity of community residents and businesses for food. While veterans in larger cities tend to cluster together, and have easier access to a hot meal and an overnight bed, rural veterans are usually alone. Rural homeless are much more difficult to identify and provide assistance to.

"Our veterans don't sit on a corner saying 'I'm homeless,'" Benelli said, making them difficult to find.

Professionals at the VA want to get to veterans before they find themselves in trouble.

"As soon as you believe your housing is at risk, or you get any kind of notice that it's at risk, be it legal, an eviction or medical reasons, whatever the case may be," Benelli said. "If you're bouncing around from location to location, couch to couch, it's time to give us a call."

To reach out, veterans and their loved ones can call a 24-hour a day hotline 1-877-424-3838, or call Benelli's office directly at 607-664-4541.

Despite public perception that the VA moves slowly, the homelessness unit guarantees an immediate response within 72 hours.

"Our goal is to end all veteran homelessness. Between our community partners and the VA, we work hard to reduce any barriers that keep veterans from finding a permanent housing solution," he said."No vet who calls us will spend the night on the street. We will find some option for them somewhere."

Once a veteran is identified as homeless, and is verified as discharged above board, the VA guarantees an obstacle free, "housing first" plan of action.

"The person doesn't have to go into recovery, they don't have to get a mental health evaluation, or do XY and Z first to get in. All they have to do is agree, and we'll do our best to find whatever services are available to that person, then help them establish different connections to maintain permanent housing," Benelli described.

Veterans who choose to stay homeless while looking for a permanent housing situation will not be turned away, and will still be connected to the same pool of resources.

"We'll help people where they're at. If they're in a car, a camper, a tent, in a barn, or under a bridge. We'll meet you anywhere and offer a path to safe and affordable housing with no road blocks," Benelli assured. "We'll do anything to help them, because veterans always come first.

While just 10-15 percent of the region's veterans served by the VA face chronic homelessness — less than that in more urban areas, but just one is too many, according to advocates.

If you're unable to attend the "Stand Down" event, and want to learn more about services offered to homeless veterans in our region, get in touch by calling the Veteran Homelessness Hotline or Benelli at the Bath VA.