Steve Norby served in the Navy for six years, operating a nuclear reactor on a submarine. When he left the service, he went to college on the GI bill to study electrical engineering and took a job working for Texas Instruments. But Norby’s severe depression slowly began taking over his life, he said, and before long he was on the streets, bouncing from shelter to shelter.
“I didn’t realize how far down I would go. My wife left me, and I started drinking,” Norby said. “I was very far gone by the time I started to make a comeback. And part of that comeback was getting into the VASH program.”
The Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing Program, administered locally by the Texoma Council of Governments, helps homeless veterans like Norby get off the streets and find the help they need. And soon, the number of veterans the program can help in Grayson, Cooke and Fannin counties will be doubling, from 25 to 50.
“It’s a very unique opportunity we have to give back to those who have given so much to our country,” said Rayleen Bingham, Section 8 program manager at TCOG. “I just can’t express how important we feel that this is – we should not have anyone coming back from war being homeless. That is unacceptable.”
The VASH program, a collaborative effort from the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Department of Housing and Urban Development, has a dual focus. Homeless veterans are given Section 8 housing assistance through HUD and therapy, training and other benefits through the VA. Veterans continue to receive housing support as long as they continue working to make progress with the VA, attending meetings and staying in contact.
This double focus of housing and benefits is important, said Bingham, because many homeless veterans are trapped in a catch-22. They are unable to access the help they need from the VA because they do not have a home address or phone number, but they cannot find a stable place to live without their VA benefits.
In 2012, TCOG was given 25 VASH vouchers to administer. In this month’s Board meeting, TCOG accepted an offer from the Department of Housing and Urban Development to apply for 25 more vouchers. The application, Bingham said, is largely a formality.
Bingham and her Section 8 housing staff work with low-income individuals every day, but she said the VASH program has been a learning experience.
“There is more to a home than just four walls: that is one of the hard, hard lessons we have had to learn during this process,” Bingham said. “Most of our VASH clients are coming to us with just a backpack. They are coming off the street or out of shelters.”
Bingham told a story of visiting with one of the veterans she helped house early in the course of the program. She said she was shocked to find an almost completely bare apartment.
“I walked into the unit, and he had one couch, a TV sitting on the floor, one plate, one knife, one fork, one spoon and one cup,” Bingham said. “I walked out of there thinking we missed the boat on this. There is no way that we are going to be able to keep our clients housed and interested in this program if they have all of these obstacles.”
Unlike most other Section 8 participants, a homeless veteran comes into a new house with little more than what they can carry. That’s why TCOG established the VASH fund. Supported entirely by donations from community members, the fund helps veterans with everything from utility deposits to buying furniture.
Bingham credits this fund with an impressive statistic: of the 16 agencies across the state of Texas offering the VASH program, TCOG has the highest retention rate. Over the last year and a half, said Bingham, three of the six clients couldn’t stay with the program.
Thanks to VASH, Norby has gone from living at Four Rivers Outreach shelter in Sherman to working there to help serve people who used to be in his situation.
“Veterans are a small segment of this overall (homeless) population,” Norby said. “For them, there are VA resources, but for other people there is almost nothing. … Somebody had to be there for me when I needed it. I want to be that person for somebody else.”
Four Rivers employs Norby to do everything from picking up donated food to helping with the shelter’s new print shop. Unfortunately, Norby said, the organization can’t afford to pay him much.
“TCOG and the VASH program allows me to live on that income,” Norby said. “So for me, that’s a win situation, and for a lot of other people, that’s a win, too.”
“What has amazed me more than anything is that, once I get a veteran on the program, they want to help other people,” said Bingham. “It’s like a domino effect. So we have this network of our VASH clients and they are all working together, helping each other go to meetings and get to school and get to jobs. It’s just amazing.”
That, along with the support of the community, has helped the program to make a deep and real impact on veterans’ lives, Bingham said. And by the end of the year, that impact will double as the program expands.
Norby grinned when he heard that 25 more veterans will get the chance to join the VASH program. He said he hopes they hear about it and take advantage of the offer.
“You can become completely restored,” he said. “The rate is not that good, because it’s hard. But there are people that are restored.”