'Veterans Aid has a model we can look to' says US charity director
Tramecia Garner, Associate Director for Housing & Residential Programs at US charity, Swords to Plowshares, shares her experiences of working with Veterans Aid as part of the Transatlantic Practice Exchange.
Tramecia Garner, Associate Director for Housing & Residential Programs at US charity Swords to Plowshares, recently spent two weeks in the UK with Veterans Aid as part of the Transatlantic Practice Exchange which is funded by the Oak Foundation and delivered by Homeless Link in England and the National Alliance to End Homelessness in the US. She arrived at a busy time for the charity, which is on the countdown to launching its transformed £8.2 residential facility in July. As a skilled professional in the field she was able to bring a US perspective to the two charities’ shared issues - and from back home in San Francisco she shared her thoughts about the experience:
“Now that my time with Veterans Aid (VA) has ended I am left thinking back on these two weeks, what I have learned and what was the biggest take-away from my time in London. Not only did I learn about veteran homelessness in the UK but I also learned how one agency can have a large-scale impact on veteran care far beyond their doors. While Veterans Aid is physically located in London, if you take a closer look at their website you can see that they have had an impact across the world, literally. How does one agency have such an impact with less than 30 staff? They have an uncompromising approach to their work based on data and a CEO that will question the status quo to stay true to the mission at hand: To address the causes of homelessness, but most importantly to end veteran homelessness through prevention.
“One of the things that struck me when talking with the staff at VA is that they are all very clear that their success is when you can’t tell the difference between a veteran that was once struggling and any other person walking down the streets of London. Simple as that seems, it spoke volumes. There was no public cry for veterans to have any “special” treatment within the confines of VA due to their military experience. They used a veteran’s military time as a protective factor and called on those skills to reinforce how to reintegrate into civilian life. This is not to say that they didn’t have veterans that needed support with mental health, substance use, or medical challenges, it just meant that this was normalized and accessing care was seen as what anyone would do who had these issues.
“VA made it clear that the issues facing their veterans are the same as those facing most folks who find themselves homeless or on the brink thereof: an inability to find work that pays a living wage, increasing costs of housing, lack of access to quality education, and so on. So, while being a veteran gets you access to a quicker response system of care in London, at the end of the day veterans are made to feel “normal” and not “special”. Dr. Milroy cited an article during his talk at Kings College which is worth reading about the “Myth of Stressed-Out Soldiers On The Street” by Heidi Kingstone, where agencies and systems present the wounded veteran and its negative impact on service members, both former and presently serving.
“This is where Veterans Aid has a model we can look to for a way of doing business that works. The Welfare to Wellbeing© model is built upon addressing the needs that veterans bring to the table as well as those needs that staff notice are keeping folks stuck in their situations. It’s not based on business as usual, where we go through a lengthy intake process before we have ever asked the veteran what they need and want to work towards. This was put on display with residents in their transitional program. Veterans meet with staff formally on a monthly basis to update their support plans which can focus on their employment goals, addressing whatever baggage is impeding their ability to maintain housing, reconnecting to family, etc. but is always based on the veterans stated goals at that time.
“Veterans are given the power to create their plan and take ownership for next steps as these goals are theirs and not those crafted by the staff. These simple but major interventions are crafted with precision to further reinforce self-sufficiency and resilience as these are the skills that will have an impact long after a veteran’s program stay. While these updates are formally documented monthly there is an open-door policy at VA and residents are constantly in and out of the main office talking with staff, following up on business and greeting other residents as they pass by the office. Most of the staff are in one shared office space so there is no wrong door and residents are always going to have access to staff that know what’s going on with their case or can quickly get up to date by simply checking their file.
“The staff onsite have a strong connection with residents and there is a true partnership and a shared sense of success when veterans make positive gains during their stay. As I sat in the office at the transitional site it was exciting to see that the connections made were not just between residents and staff but also amongst residents themselves. There was true camaraderie built up by residents that is also part of the design process. Residents learn how to create community amongst each other and it is strengthened by their shared experiences of having served in the military and now, as they all learn and grow together while putting their lives back on track ,and supporting each other along the way. There was no shortage of kind words amongst residents as well as direct feedback when residents were not giving all they could to themselves or the community.
“The final beauty of the program is when veterans move into their new flat. VA ensures veterans have more than a key to a new place but also everything it takes to create a home. The staff and some of the residents help paint, move in and set up new furniture purchased by the agency but selected by the resident, and whatever else is needed to ensure veterans are ready to begin their new journey.
Veterans are leaving the program truly ready to succeed and it shows in their low recidivism rates and high successful placements into permanent housing from the program. While there are many differences in terms of the social welfare systems here in the US vs. London, there isn’t much difference in the needs and challenges facing the people we are both serving. So, how will I share more details of what I’ve learned and next steps? You will have to check out my full report for that information."
CEO of Veterans Aid, Dr Hugh Milroy, said, “It was a pleasure and a privilege to host Tramecia as part of the Transatlantic Practice Exchange. Our organisations have the shared goal of helping veterans and we were extremely interested in her views as an experienced practitioner from another country.” Like VA, Swords to Plowshares is focused on providing practical help and we found her to be a kindred spirit in regards to focusing on needs-led solutions. I’m delighted that she found her time with us so useful.”
The final report produced by Transatlantic Practice Exchange participants, one of them being Ms Tramecia Garner, is now available here