Local groups address veteran homelessness in Madison

Porchlight's transitional housing complex is a home for veterans in needPorchlight's transitional housing complex is a home for veterans in needJeff Nordeng joined the Wisconsin Army National Guard in 1987. Working with the 13th Evacuation Hospital as a pharmacy technician, he was deployed to Operation Desert Storm and in Saudi Arabia among other places and provided medicine and immediate treatment to soldiers stationed there. He stayed at this job for 10 years.

After returning home, Nordeng was able to find a job as a math teacher in Iowa. Yet after getting a divorce, through which he incurred a substantial amount of debt, he moved to Wisconsin on a job lead that his friend had presented.

The lead did not pan out. Unsuccessful at landing another teaching job in the Janesville district, Nordeng quickly began running out of money. At one point, he resorted to sleeping in his storage locker for two weeks.

“One of the biggest issues is that you don’t know where to find help,” Nordeng said.

During one cold winter night in 2011, 67,495 veterans slept on streets across the nation, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

This phenomenon is not confined to any one geographical area. According to the Madison Homeless Veterans Initiative, a local organization dedicated to finding and supporting homeless vets, about 100 homeless veterans currently live in Madison. It’s likely that many more have yet to be discovered.

While Nordeng says resources do exist for veterans after they leave the service, he said they aren’t made clear to the soldiers.

“There’s a disconnect while you’re in the service. They want to tell you about all the great reasons to join, but once you get in there, it’s like a big secret as to what’s available for you,” he said.

He went through multiple support programs before finding Porchlight about a year ago. Porchlight, a non-profit organization dedicated to supporting and housing Dane County’s homeless population, hosts the Veterans Transitional Housing Program, a “services-intensive program to assist veterans with housing, employment and overcoming mental health and substance abuse concerns,” according to their website.

According to Beatrice Hadidian, Development Director for Porchlight, the Transitional Housing Program began in 2009 with help from the William S. Middleton Memorial Hospital. After Porchlight received two grants in 2008 to begin a supportive housing program solely for veterans, they began constructing a complex at 1102 Spring Street. It was completed a year later.

Loran Meier is a veterans peer specialist at the housing complex. With 24 rooms and a kitchen, meeting spaces and an office, the center is a home for veterans in need.

“If a guy comes who doesn’t have any income, we work to get income coming in,” Meier said. “We give them more education, and basically provide for them a place to stay while they’re doing that.”

John Betchol, UW-Madison’s Assistant Dean of Students for Veterans Affairs, said the lifestyle transition is just too difficult for some vets.

“These people do well in a structured environment, when they know what they have to do,” Bechtol said. “But after leaving the service, some of them just become a boat adrift.”

And according to Marybeth Urbin, Homeless Program Coordinator at William S. Middleton Memorial Veterans Hospital, “The economy plays a role in this trend. The longer you’re homeless and unemployed, more issues show up.”

Nordeng says that the knowledge and support that Porchlight provides has given him the ability to keep moving forward, despite unfortunate circumstances in the past.

“It has provided me the resources to chase my dreams and goals, number one of which is to become independent again,” he said. “This allows me the chance to do that. I don’t know how I would have otherwise found a place to live and the means to survive.”

Other independent Madison organizations, such as the Daytime Warming Shelter and Operation Welcome Home have stepped up to help secure shelter for veterans. Some have financial support from the federal government, while others operate solely through donations and volunteer work from the community.

As part of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Federal Strategic Plan to Prevent and End Homelessness, Secretary Eric Shinseki set a goal to end veteran homelessness by 2015.

Nordeng and Meier agree that after their educational and financial problems have been solved, the negative connotations homelessness carries in the working world may be the biggest barrier between joblessness and employment for veterans.

“I can’t envision the situation where I’d want to share [the fact that I’m homeless] because of the stigma,” Nordeng said. “They must think, ‘this guy must have some substance abuse issues, or some kind of issues that would cause him to fail with us.’

“We need to work on reducing that stigma.”