When Ivan Dickerson returned to the United States in 1982, he noticed a significant transformation from his 1977 departure. The Iran hostage crisis had captivated the nation for over a year, the first woman had been named to the Supreme Court, and MTV suddenly offered Americans 24-hour access to music videos.
Dickerson had changed too. When he entered the military five years prior, he was intent on earning the Army Ranger tab and serving in the Army Special Operations Command. When his first trial arrived in the form of a broken wrist sustained during exercises in basic training, he took a different path.
Dickerson went on to serve in an Army post office in rural Germany. In a time before cell phones and social media, being stationed more than 100 miles from Frankfurt, the largest city, most outside communication was limited. After a few months, Dickerson’s sense of isolation intensified.
Unfortunately, when Dickerson returned to the U.S. and transitioned to civilian life, such feelings did not remain in Germany. He found a crowd to spend time with, hoping the group could help combat the loneliness he felt. Regrettably, these individuals offered him more than companionship. He began using drugs and alcohol frequently. Soon, he relied on both.
Finding health, housing and hope
Dickerson did not seek help from VA when he returned from Germany. He was under the impression he did not qualify for benefits due to his general discharge status. After experiencing homelessness and battling addiction for decades, his health began to decline.
In 2010, Dickerson finally visited the VA Cincinnati Health Care System, his local VA, for help.
He was connected to a medical team equipped with resources to resolve his medical issues, helping him take the first steps on the path to recovery.
When his medical team learned of his housing status, they introduced Dickerson to Talbert House, an Ohio-based organization focused on providing housing, addiction treatment and mental health support. With their help, Dickerson began rebuilding his life. He maintained sobriety and successfully worked hard in a new job, eventually saving enough to purchase a new car that could ease his commute to work.
Despite his progress, recovering from addiction is not linear, easy or always in an individual’s control. Setbacks with his health led Dickerson to relapse. As he began using substances again, the consequences were swift. He lost his housing, job and car quickly.
He did not give up hope. In 2019, he found housing at Joseph House, a Veteran recovery center offering permanent and transitional housing in Cincinnati. Dickerson credits the Joseph House team for helping him achieve sobriety. He also credits his VA case and social workers, who visited twice weekly.
“I knew I had to walk that tightrope,” Dickerson explained, citing his motivation to abstain from using substances to prioritize receiving his VA benefits and continued support from his caseworkers.
Flexible assistance: The bread and butter of independence
Since 2020, Dickerson has been sober and living independently through the Housing and Urban Development-VA Supportive Housing Program (HUD-VASH). He is grateful to VA for paying his deposit and first month’s rent, costs that otherwise would have prevented him from securing the apartment.
VA’s flexibility to provide temporary rental assistance, along with getting him a new bed, was authorized as part of the Johnny Isakson and David P. Roe Act. Section 4201 authorizes VA to use appropriated funds for homeless Veterans and those enrolled in the HUD-VASH program during the COVID-19 public health emergency.
“Though housing Veterans is imperative, the transition to independent living can be overwhelming,” said HUD-VASH Social Worker Seerat Bahniwal. She describes Dickerson as extremely disciplined, always carefully managing his finances to ensure his rent and bills are paid.
When he no longer qualified for food stamps last year, Bahniwal recognized he often did not have enough to eat. Bahniwal visited local food pantries, where she gathered items for him and other Veterans in need. Unfortunately, the pandemic has contributed to food insecurity across the nation. Food pantries are often overwhelmed and have a shortage of supplies.
Bahniwal said the impact of the 4201 authorization is monumental and allows her to provide hardworking Veterans like Dickerson with the benefits they need to make ends meet. When she delivers food or informs a Veteran their utility bill is paid, she says the relief is obvious: “They light up like a Christmas tree.”
Dickerson encourages all Veterans facing housing insecurity to contact their local VA. He said, “They have done a great job helping me get on my feet. Do the right thing. Seek help.”
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.