Angelica Valentine has been deeply impacted by many of the veterans she’s worked with as Westhab’s veterans programs supervisor, but one stands out. Ed, a Marine Corps veteran, came to stay at Westhab’s 28 Pier back in 2018. Valentine found him unique in his honesty about how things fell apart for him—how he hit rock bottom. He took responsibility for his part in his own struggles but managed not to beat himself up for it. Valentine witnessed Ed’s incredible growth and wisdom. “He knew when to ask for help and that he couldn’t do it by himself. He had a level of self-awareness that few people have.” Valentine and her staff were able to transition Ed into permanent housing in Queens, the same borough where he grew up. We did a story about Ed in our 2018 impact report. Valentine has the story cut out and displayed on her desk. Success stories like these are one of the reasons Valentine loves her job.
Valentine grew up in San Antonio, Texas, a “military city” as she calls it. Her family is full of veterans and people currently serving, in part because the military is one of very few options available to low-income communities of color in that area. Many of her family members were limited to joining the military or getting a blue-collar job. Of those two options, the military offers unmatched benefits and upward mobility. With so many family members and friends in the military, Valentine has witnessed firsthand the specific challenges faced by veterans when they return home and the compounding struggles of being a veteran and a person of color in America. When Valentine saw the open role for Westhab’s veterans programs supervisor back in 2014, it felt like a perfect fit. Valentine’s background in clinical case management attracted her to a role that gave her the opportunity to work one-on-one with homeless veterans struggling with medical disabilities, mental health issues, and substance abuse. “I really believe we need to do more for our veterans,” she said. Thankfully, she’s one of the people making that a reality.
Westhab has three veterans programs that Valentine oversees—two that offer permanent housing and one that offers a short-term place to stay while veterans get back on their feet. We call this transitional housing. The transitional housing at 28 Pier is something Valentine is particularly proud of. 28 Pier offers 18 to 24 months of housing to homeless veterans, allowing them to recoup with a roof over their heads. Every veteran that stays at 28 Pier is facing a medical ailment, mental health issue, or substance abuse—often all at the same time. They’re provided with a case manager that refers them to programs and resources to help them address their barriers to housing. This is all done while their immediate needs are being met, meaning they have the security needed to focus on recovery. “On a daily basis, I am proud of the quality of work that we provide to not just veterans, but to all our clients,” Valentine shared. “We’re always striving to do better because our clients deserve more.” According to Valentine, what sets Westhab’s veterans programs apart are the partnerships. All three programs have partnerships through the VA with organizations that supply groceries and furniture to recently housed veterans. Organizations like My Brother Vinny and Family to Family make things “homier” for their beneficiaries. “We can’t do it alone,” said Valentine. “None of us do this work by ourselves.”
When asked about the particular struggle of veterans who are unhoused, Valentine said “it’s complicated to be a veteran.” The trauma that comes from being in the military compounds with the trauma of being unhoused and can lead to or exacerbate existing addiction and mental health issues and create more barriers to stability. It’s something civilians will never understand, and it’s why veterans are different kinds of clients with very specific case management needs. The majority of veterans that come through Westhab’s program—and the majority of homeless veterans in general—are men of color. Racial trauma, military trauma, low-income status, and mental health issues compound to make the people who walk through Valentine’s door extremely vulnerable.
Thankfully, the number of homeless veterans continues to decrease after it was cut in half between 2010 and 2019. The Obama-era HUD-VASH, which helps veterans who are homeless and their families find and sustain permanent housing, continues to do what it was designed to do. Even so, there are still many veterans who are homeless. One of the barriers to helping them find housing and one of the struggles of Valentine’s role is simply getting the word out about the services that organizations like Westhab and the VA offer. Too often, veterans who are homeless don’t know that options like 28 Pier exist. So, here comes your call to action. If you’re reading this and know of a homeless veteran in need of housing and services, please reach out to Angelica Valentine at firstname.lastname@example.org. If you’re looking for another way to get involved, join Westhab in participating in the My Brother Vinny walk on June 13 where we’ll walk to raise money and awareness for their essential mission that goes hand in hand with ours. And lastly, this Military Appreciation Month, we call on you to never assume why someone is homeless. Everyone deserves the security of a roof over their head, and people like Valentine are making that happen for the men and women who bravely chose to serve our country.