- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 25, 2004

Staff writer Denise Barnes interviewed Nanci Jewell, D.C. metro director of U.S. VETS.

Question: What is your group’s mission?

Answer: Our sole mission is the reintegration of homeless veterans back into mainstream society. I think, organizationally, our philosophy is really that each veteran is unique, their situations are unique and the amount of time it is going to take them to reintegrate is unique.

Some veterans are fine in six months; others with more serious problems — those who have been on the streets for a long time — will require more support and their reintegration may be more difficult. At Ignatia House, because of our location, limited funding and lack of a clinical staff, we accept veterans who are at the high end of the recovery process.

However, we do have one Vietnam veteran who has severe post-traumatic stress disorder — he was shot twice in Vietnam and has an organic brain injury along with multiple physical ailments. In his case, we spend the majority of our time working with Veterans Affairs, collaborating with their psychiatric medical team. We would love to take in more veterans like him, but we simply do not have the resources.

The opposite end of the spectrum at Ignatia House would be a 27-year-old homeless veteran with no substance-abuse history. This young man just went through a bad divorce, relocated and has no support system in the metropolitan area. Getting him back on his feet is far less challenging. The majority of veterans at Ignatia House have a history of substance abuse and typically suffer from depression.

They have to reintegrate back into the work force, and many have huge financial problems that run the gamut from owing back taxes to criminal histories. There are a lot of barriers to reintegration, so we work with them on overcoming these barriers and we provide them with supportive housing and help them get jobs, obtain the benefits they’re entitled to and relearn all of the life skills they’ve lost.

We also help the veterans address their credit histories, help them to reunite with their families, get them help for their medical problems and offer sobriety support. Ignatia House is a 100 percent drug-free and alcohol-free environment.

Q: How many homeless veterans can Ignatia House accommodate?

A: We have 36 rooms, and every veteran has his own room and they share a bathroom with another person. In the 14 months that we have been here, we’ve had as many as 60 veterans live in the house. We have 24-hour support services on site, and I’m proud to say that we have an 80 percent success rate. We are very nontraditional in our approach because we don’t have the funding to be traditional.

My personal philosophy is if you expect the best from someone, you are far more likely to get it. So, we started with as few rules as possible and we try to get residents to invest in the house by telling the veterans that this is their home.

Our one house rule is that everyone is treated with respect. We don’t work on a 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. schedule; we’re here when they come home. You know, sometimes just having someone to share your day with or share your frustrations with at the end of the day makes such a difference.

So, if we have to put in a 10-hour day — if we sit and talk with the veterans [during the evenings] or have dinner with them, it’s worth it, because they give back.

For example, one of our veterans who has become quite successful and now is in a position to hire personnel has already hired one of the veterans from Ignatia House.

We had one leaking washing machine for 36 people and he brought a washer and dryer for the house. He also got his father and mother to donate a dryer, and his sister donated another washer and dryer.

So, our entire laundry room was a gift from one veteran who Ignatia House helped to get on with his life. It’s not uncommon for the veterans to share with one another — they share their food stamps and they help one another out in many ways.

Q: What does Ignatia House need?

A: Our biggest needs are financial. Here’s our dilemma. For example, we get a shelter-plus-care rent subsidy for 24 rooms here, but there is no money with that for supportive services. However, we are required under shelter-plus-care to supply supportive services that are a dollar-for-dollar match in the rent subsidy that we receive. There’s no money for supportive services, only for rent.

We’ve had an AmeriCorps program since 1997. AmeriCorps has been our seed for starting all of our programs.

And we have AmeriCorps volunteers — their job was to network with each other and connect veterans with services. We still do that, but not to the degree we’ve done in the past, partly because we don’t have the cash match.

Five thousand dollars will provide us 10 months of an AmeriCorps volunteer’s services as a full-time case worker. Our biggest need is to be able to pay for AmeriCorps members because they provide the direct services to the homeless veterans.

Another big ticket item that we need is a van, because we cannot transport people in our own personal vehicles. We also have an incredible need for plumbing because we are located in an old building.

Q: How many homeless veterans are in the District?

A: In the District, I would say between 1,200 and 1,600, and that’s just in the city. If you include the D.C./Baltimore area, it’s about 6,500.

Q: Of the population of homeless veterans, what group have you noticed increasing?

A: #I would say young men and the ones coming home from the current war in Iraq. They have huge mental health problems. One in five will return home from the war with problems.

A huge part of why people are homeless is due to a lack of affordable housing. The plan the mayor’s office has come up with to end homelessness, and which we totally support, calls for 6,000 new units of affordable housing throughout the city.

There is a lot of development going on in D.C. now, which we need to bring in business and jobs, but it is also eliminating much of the low-income housing and it is not being replaced. Many of the veterans who live at Ignatia House are fine and capable of living without supervision — they could live on their own — but they simply can’t afford to do so.

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