Gary East did not have a good impression of VA. When he returned from six years as an Army radio and computer mechanic, he found it didn’t offer him adequate support for the transition to civilian life.
East’s impression was formed in 1988, the same year the Department of Veterans Affairs Act was signed, but one year before the transformational legislation went into effect. With this act, President Ronald Regan declared VA a cabinet-level department, which expanded its authority to provide greater benefits to Veterans from the federal level.
In 1989, Ed Derwinski became the first secretary of VA. He outlined his vision: “I consider the new Department to have a vital mission. In fact, it is so vital that there’s only one place for the Veterans of America: in the Cabinet Room, at the table with the President of the United States of America.”
East, on the other hand, was in a different place – his home state of Ohio, where he would experience homelessness intermittently for the next 34 years.
A son’s request: Give VA a second chance
East became a skilled survivalist. He learned where to take shelter on the Ohio riverbank and how to trade scrap metal for food and necessities. Though he sometimes stayed with friends and family, he valued his independence. After a few weeks of their hospitality, he always insisted on returning to his routine.
East’s son had encouraged him to seek VA help for years. Still, East rejected the notion, remembering his first encounters. Finally, in January 2021, a cumulation of challenges introduced by the COVID-19 pandemic drove him to reconsider.
His son made the first call to the Cincinnati VA Medical Center where staff outlined the services available to Veterans experiencing homelessness. He relayed this to his father, urging him to explore a system that seemed genuinely determined to help. Finally, East agreed to visit VA with his son, but he didn’t make any promises.
Fully furnished apartment he’s happy to call home
Almost immediately, VA connected East with housing through its Grant and Per-Diem program with Volunteers of America, a nonprofit that has served vulnerable Americans for more than 123 years. Six months later, VA located and fully furnished an apartment for him. It’s a place he is happy to call home today.
VA’s ability to provide East with the various resources he needed to transition to safe and permanent housing was made possible through the Johnny Isakson and David P. Roe Veterans Health Care and Benefits Improvement Act of 2020. Section 4201 of this act authorizes VA to use appropriated funds for homeless Veterans and those enrolled in the Housing and Urban Development-VA Supportive Housing (HUD-VASH) program throughout the COVID-19 public health emergency.
This legislation has been paramount in providing Veterans experiencing homelessness with life-saving services. East reflects on the funding’s impact, saying, “I have a warm, dry place to sleep that doesn’t move around. I can manage.”
East values his weekly visit with his HUD-VASH caseworker, Seerat Bahniwal, whom he acknowledges as essential in helping him maintain his independence. Bahniwal uses Section 4201 as a tool to prevent East and other Veterans in the area from experiencing hunger.
VA’s help over the last year has encouraged East to explore other benefits he has earned. And while he is eager to continue receiving services through VA, his sights are set far beyond his own care.
“Go to VA. There is a program for you.”
A year ago, if East had known he soon would have his own apartment filled with a steady supply of nutritious food, he may not have believed it. If he had heard such changes were introduced by VA, he definitely wouldn’t have believed it. As he reflects on his improved circumstances, he reminds us that with the right support, anything is possible. That’s a truth for individuals and organizations alike.
East hopes other Veterans will follow his example.
“Go to VA. I’m telling you, there is a program for you,” East said. He feels a responsibility to guide his peers experiencing similar hardships to the same outcomes. “I’m going to help Veterans,” he said.
VA is working tirelessly to ensure no individual who has served their country is without a home. We could not agree with East more: It takes all of us to end Veteran homelessness.
Learn about VA programs
- Read more about how the 4201 authority helps VA provide flexible assistance to homeless Veterans.
- Read more about the HUD-VASH program to determine if you are eligible to receive rental assistance.
- Veterans who are homeless or at risk for homelessness should contact the National Call Center for Homeless Veterans at 877-4AID-VET (877-424-3838).
- Visit the VA Homeless Programs website to learn about housing initiatives and other programs for Veterans exiting homelessness.
- For more stories like these, visit the HPO website and subscribe to the Homeless Programs Office newsletter to receive monthly updates about programs and supportive services for Veterans experiencing or at risk of homelessness.