SQNews holds Q&A with Kayla Owen, Case Manager for HomeFirst Services of Santa Clara County
What do you want the incarcerated veterans to know about your program?
We want veterans returning from incarceration to know that HomeFirst has a wide variety of supportive services that can assist them with their reintegration into society. Our program design is to “meet the client where they’re at” with the overall goal of increasing income, exploring employment opportunities, engaging in mental and physical health services, and finding and maintaining permanent housing. Our programs aim to remove barriers that veterans face in their efforts to return to self-sufficiency, whatever that may mean for each individual. Our agency and staff are dedicated to our mission to cultivate people’s potential to end homelessness.
What has your experience been like, working with the returning veterans? How has your perception changed about the people you help and the system?
The HomeFirst experience with returning veterans is centered on the initial adjustment period. In many ways, they are “starting over” and adapting to a new environment and different structures, which can be overwhelming. We are often a landing space for veterans to have a safe, stable environment while figuring out their next steps. Many veterans want the support that our programs offer, and other times they aren’t ready to engage in services. Fortunately, HomeFirst has a range of options and connections to community resources to meet veterans’ needs. Those returning from incarceration may also find our environment and structured programs are helpful. If a less structured program is more appealing to you, we have that available as well.
A stigma surrounding people that were incarcerated is like a cloud of judgment and negativity, and this stigma can place a barrier to everyday life and trying to move forward. A criminal record can affect employment opportunities, familial relationships (support systems), affordable housing, and other areas needed to increase self-sufficiency. Those attempting to reintegrate into society should have the tools to create a new path without being denied the resources necessary to do so.
At any point, any person could be one step away from experiencing homelessness themselves, so compassion for the people we serve and the system we work in must come first.
What have been the challenges and successes?
When a veteran comes into our program…in different instances, they face homelessness, mental health, physical health, and substance use issues and are overwhelmed with having to “start over.” It can be challenging to trust a system that may have previously failed them. Our job is to build rapport, stay consistent in our efforts…when a veteran arrives at our program defeated and discouraged, one of the most rewarding things is to help them see their potential, that we are genuinely here to help, and that they can reach their goals one day at a time.
Marcos, an honorable discharge Army veteran, found himself planning his release from prison after 14 years, with nowhere to go. He wrote to HomeFirst Services and qualified for early release into the Veterans Emergency Shelter Program (VESP). Of his experience in the program, he says: “I’ve got PTSD so I could talk to staff about things … they were able to help me reintegrate into society. Having someone right there onsite to help made it possible, as opposed to having to call someone on the phone or something. Every time I got mad at someone, Eric (VESP Case Manager) would be there to remind me why escalating it wasn’t worth it — he would remind me to think about my grandkids. If not for this program, I would have ended up back in prison. I would have been on the street and gotten frustrated and just gone back in.” During his time in the program, he received support to increase his VA income and advocacy to reduce his parole term. He connected to HUD-VASH, the VA’s permanent supportive housing program, and HomeFirst staff helped him find an apartment that fit his needs. Today, when he looks back on his journey from incarcerated to housed, he reflects, “Home means family. Home means freedom.”
Do you work with any programs inside prisons and how do the incarcerated people respond to the program?
HomeFirst is not actively working with any programs inside prisons. However, we have held presentations to veterans groups inside prisons to get the word out about our services. The presentations have had a great turnout and outcome; we have received tons of letters! We can write to you and the Parole Board confirming that you have a program to utilize upon release from incarceration if you are eligible.
How has the COVID pandemic affected the program?
The COVID-19 pandemic had a widespread effect on our programs, and we constantly had to evolve and adapt to the everchanging public health regulations and county guidelines. With the constant risk of COVID-19 outbreaks, especially in our congregate settings, we were able to place over 106 veterans into eight different hotel sites. Veterans placed in various hotel sites created new challenges — we noticed a lack of engagement in services and increased mental health and substance use challenges. We were constantly learning what was and wasn’t working for the veterans and how we could provide our services most effectively. In a way, we lost a sense of community since we could no longer hold workshops and groups with our veterans due to COVID-19 restrictions. We were missing out on connecting face to face and had to get creative to find a way to bring everyone together. Increasing check-ins, implementing Zoom calls, and utilizing strength-based methods to keep our veterans engaged was trial and error. Over the past year or so, this has become our “new normal,” and it requires work from both sides to ensure the veterans are receiving the full scope of our services.
We were provided with support from the VA Outreach Doctors. They made a significant impact in delivering ongoing testing, monitoring of symptoms, and providing veterans with the COVID-19 vaccination if they were interested. A great benefit of our veterans being in our program during the COVID-19 pandemic was that they had access to these resources, even if they were not eligible for VA healthcare.
There are a few incarcerated women veterans. Are there any additional programs to meet their needs?
Women veterans may be eligible for several of our programs, including our Supportive Services for Veterans Families (SSVF) program. This program seeks to prevent and end homelessness among veterans by providing rapid re-housing and homeless prevention assistance to qualified veterans and their families who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless. It focuses on short-term assistance leading to long-term stability for low-income veterans and their families and can include motel stays if short-term shelter is needed.
What message do you want the incarcerated to take away about your program?
The overall message that I would like the incarcerated to take away from what our programs offer is that if you are a veteran needing supportive services, we are here to support you in a smooth transition back into society. Our programs have a wide variety of eligibility requirements and plenty of options, so don’t hesitate to reach out! If you are interested in any of our programs, please connect with HomeFirst staff and we can find the right placement for you.
Any future plans or goals for the program?
One of the main goals for our programs is to continue outreaching and spreading awareness about the services that we offer for our veterans. Additionally, we would like to present to incarcerated groups of veterans on a more frequent basis to let them know they have a place to go upon release. It is important to us that all veterans are recognized and are not forgotten.
Please add any thoughts of inspiration or words you want the readers to know.
HomeFirst is one of the largest nonprofit providers of homeless services for veterans in the Bay Area. In the last quarter alone, we served over 300 veterans. Our organization envisions a community in which everyone has a home — with more than 40 years of experience, we’ve learned that everyone has the potential to get housed and stay housed. We are relentlessly focused on eliminating barriers to housing and creating stability for everyone we serve.
We truly believe that everyone deserves a second chance (and sometimes a third, fourth and fifth…) and has the potential to be successful!
Letters can be sent to:
C/O HomeFirst Veterans Services
2011 Little Orchard St
San Jose, CA 95125