Advocacy groups navigate complexities of veteran homelessness

Housing shortage is just one issue

The low housing vacancy rate in Madison presents challenges for the homeless veterans, but advocates who deal with the problem say other issues need to be addressed as well.

“There are a lot of layers to homelessness. There is the issue of finding jobs for veterans. There is also the issue of mental health,” Harrison Booker, the executive director of F.A.C.E.S Inc, said.

Booker founded F.A.C.E.S., a non-profit organization dedicated to helping homeless veterans. He has firsthand knowledge about the issue. For two years after leaving the U.S. Navy, he was homeless.

“One issue is the percentage of vacancy. I know when I was homeless it was around 2 percent in Madison and I think it is around 3 percent now,” Booker said.

According to Madison Gas and Electric, the vacancy rate in 2016 was 2.82 percent.

While some homeless veterans live on the street, most find temporary shelter with friends or in hotels.

“Some of these people are what we call couch hoppers. The go from one couch to the next of friends that are willing to put them up for a day or so,” Jim Blankenheim, president of the Wisconsin Vietnam Veterans, said.

Blankenheim is also one of the founders of Stand Down Madison, an organization that for 23 years has supported homeless veterans.

“Stand down” is a term familiar to members of the military.

“You try to get yourself ready to go back into the field, and this is what we’re doing. We’re trying to get them to go back into society,” Blankenheim said.

Stand Down Madison provides food, clothing and medical and mental health care to homeless veterans. If the goal is to put a roof over the head of a homeless vet, the organization starts with the foundation of a job.

“Being able to help them with a job is probably one of the important things. Housing is important, but I think if they get back on their feet, they could find some housing to get going again,” Blankenheim said.

While veteran homelessness is a complex problem, both Blankenheim and Booker have seen success stories.

“Oh yes. In fact, we have people that were homeless last year that came back this year to help others get back in it. They are the best ambassadors we can get,” Blankenheim said.