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Gulf Coast VA Reaches Out To Homeless Veterans
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The Biloxi VA says the number of homeless veterans on the coast is declining. MPB’s Evelina Burnett was at the agency’s annual stand down yesterday, which brought together VA and local community services to help homeless vets.

Desert Storm Army veteran Clarence Smith Junior is getting a hair cut at the Biloxi VA’s stand-down. Smith is a homeless in-patient at the Biloxi VA. Unlike many veterans, nationwide, who have been critical of the VA’s services, Smith says he’s had a great experience.

"Everything is going great," he says. "The VA is wonderful, and obviously the community is wonderful, and that's all you can ask for. You take one step, and someone else takes another step on your behalf." 

The stand down, in a patch of open space in Hiller Park in Biloxi, is offering everything from vision screenings to flu shots to chair massages. Eric Oleson, homeless program manager at the Gulf Coast VA, says these stand downs are held at VAs across the country.

"If they're not into health care, we're going to try to enroll them into health care," he says. "If we identify they're homeless, we're going to meet with them and try to get them housing as soon as possible. We have food, dental services, vision, just all kinds of things to make sure we can take care of them any way we can, and come up with a plan to end their homelessness."

Oleson says about 150 veterans had come through by late morning.

"But the one positive thing is, the point in time count, which is an annual count in January, continues to indicate that there's fewer homeless veterans on the Gulf Coast," he says. "So it's very possible that through the interventions of the VA with the housing vouchers, we're getting more homeless veterans into housing, and fewer of them are showing up here because the need is not as great as it was the last couple of years."

Oleson notes the point in time survey, as a snapshot of just one day, may not reflect the overall number of homeless veterans, which could fluctuate throughout the year.

According to the Open Doors Homeless Coalition, which coordinates the point in time count on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, there were 46 literally homeless veterans counted in January 2013, and 34 literally homeless veterans counted in January 2014, a 26% drop.

"The reason for the drop is attributed to the services provided by the VA and HUD in the form of VASH vouchers and Supportive Services for Veterans and their Families programs administered by Back Bay Mission in Biloxi and Hancock Housing Resource Center in Waveland," says Mary Simons, director of Open Doors. "Over 240 literally homeless veterans received housing support and services through these programs and permanent supportive housing programs on the Coast in 2014."