Pennsylvanians combat veteran homelessness by understanding their culture
Housing Pennsylvania's homeless veterans requires mass cooperation of services – from healthcare providers to budgeting workshops. However, many homeless vets want something deeper: respect.
At St. Francis Commons, a transitional housing complex for homeless veterans, vets can stay for up to a year with all of their finances like medical bills and food covered while they work on achieving housing and career goals. St. Francis is run by Catholic Social Services and is part of the Wilkes-Barre Veteran Affairs Medical Center’s (VAMC) network of community partners.
One of their newest residents is Robert Partner, who served in the U.S. Navy on an aircraft carrier between 1979-82. He moved in just a few days ago, on 9/11. For the last 40 years, Partner says that he has felt a divide between himself and non-veterans.
“People just gotta start understanding [us] a little more,” says Partner. “Y’know, it’s great people are saying, ‘Hey, thanks for your service.’ That’s a good thing. Don’t make it stop there…there’s a lot of times where you get into situations where people kind of shy away from you because they think [every veteran] is nuts.”
Jennifer Spitler, NEPA’s Regional Program Outreach Coordinator for the PA Department of Military and Veteran Affairs, feels the chasm between veterans and non-veterans is getting wider as less people enlist in the military. She says veterans usually have to reach their breaking point before they ask for help.
“Y’know, asking for help for most people is really difficult,” says Spitler. “For a veteran, when in the eyes of a non-veteran or a civilian…you’re seen as a hero…a provider or a person who’s supposed to be taking care of things, [you feel] you’re not the person that’s supposed to be asking for help. And that’s ingrained also in the military culture.”
Spitler coordinates with Together with Veterans NEPA (TWV,) a grassroots suicide prevention program designed for vets living in rural areas. Their veteran luncheons and coffee hours do not advertise suicide prevention strategies, but instead work on building connections between veterans.
“If you have…somebody who else you trust to talk to about what you’re dealing with, you’re more likely to seek out services because you have someone else who’s nagging at you that you should probably go do that,” says Spitler.
Coming from a military family herself, Spitler stresses that serving our veterans – regardless if they face homelessness – requires understanding their culture. The veteran/civilian divide not only isolates, but can create miscommunication and even anger from non-veterans, according to Spitler. She cites the Vietnam War for exacerbating those tensions.
“[Vietnam Era veterans] are the most distrusting of those services they are so entitled to. And many of them just either frankly don’t know, or they don’t feel like they are entitled to them because of the way they have been seen by society,” says Spitler.
That trauma or disconnect becomes ingrained in our culture, says Spitler.
Shannon McLafferty, the Wilkes-Barre VA’s Homeless Coordinator and Grant Per Diem Liaison, says she works through the veteran/non-veteran divide by serving veterans on their own terms.
“Our biggest goal is to empower them, right? So, these veterans fought for our country, so we know that they can be very resourceful, we know they are very strong-willed. So, we try to provide them the tools that they need, so they can advocate for themselves,” says McLafferty.
She says balancing veteran needs and services is challenging.
“It’s very hard when you have to explain to a veteran that they need a higher level of care than what they’re comfortable with. That’s difficult. And with our aging population, we’re seeing more and more of that. A lot of our veterans don’t want to give up their freedom,” says McLafferty.
Veteran services themselves are imperfect, according to McLafferty. One of her veterans, Brian Wilbur, has applied and been denied four times for VA benefits because of filing problems. McLafferty and Wilbur are still fighting to secure his benefits.
In the meantime, McLafferty has been able to get Wilbur housing at the same facility as Robert Partner: St. Francis Commons. Just last year Wilbur was in prison. Now, he has re-enrolled in college and is on his way to getting his bachelor’s degree in criminal justice. He plans to become a counselor for kids in the criminal justice system.
“Truly by the grace of God I was able to come here. This place has helped me so much. I was able to get my surgery done. By far the biggest thing was: I was able to maintain my recovery,” says Wilbur.
Through the VA and St. Francis, Wilbur has been able to be there for his daughter, who lives nearby.
“She’s my world,” says Wilbur. “Like Shannon [McLafferty] said, y’know, it’s truly…the main reason that I had to be back in Scranton. Y’know, because, I can’t be far away from her,” says Wilbur.
As of Sept. 2023, nearly 1,070 homeless veterans in Pennsylvania have been placed in housing since January, according to the U.S. VA.