DENVER, Colo. — After almost a decade of decreases, the number of veterans experiencing homelessness rose again in 2020.
Emergency funding from the CARES Act helped establish programs to combat the issue and house veterans in hotels and motels. Now, the one-time fund is running low just as the programs really showed signs of success.
Army veteran Alex Abeyta is one of the hundreds of veterans who received temporary housing in Colorado, and he said this program helped him get his life back. Just a few months after getting off the streets, he’s fully furnished his own apartment.
“When you earn it, you know, that's special, and having nothing, to then build it back up is even better,” said Abeyta.
Abeyta was set to start a new job last February in Las Vegas, but the pandemic eliminated his position. He was unable to receive unemployment benefits and quickly found himself in a tough situation with no place to stay and bills piled high.
“I was always responsible. I always had a job. And this pandemic really, you know, just turned me upside down,” said Abeyta.
He took a bus home to Colorado hoping he’d find help.
“I came out here with less than $100 and a backpack full of clothes, and I had to leave everything. It was devastating. I found myself downtown Denver, with my luggage, and I didn't know what to do. I felt uncomfortable. I felt ashamed,” said Abeyta.
He was determined to get himself off the streets.
“I didn't want to be homeless, you know, in the pain and the suffering. Even for that little bit of time, I didn't want to be there,” he said.
After weeks of bouncing from place to place, and staying a few nights outside in a park, he made it to a shelter in Boulder and connected with Homes For All Veterans.
Stephen Shaughnessy with Homes For All Veterans, part of Rocky Mountain Human Services, said they saw an incredible increase in the need for all kinds of assistance for veterans during the pandemic, and especially in temporary housing.
“Every veteran has the right to safe, permanent housing,” Shaughnessy said.
The program is grant-funded by the Department of Veterans Services, but during the pandemic, the program received funding to put veterans in hotels and motels with few requirements.
Shaughnessy said it helped the program reach so many more people in need because it allowed Homes For All Veterans to help any veteran for any period of time during the pandemic.
“Typically, we're not able to provide that temporary housing support, and so I think what it did was a couple of things: it helped these individuals have an option to have a safe place to live without risk. And I think that it was helpful in the sense that because at a very kind of fundamental level, it's hard to sort of focus on those other things and reach those goals when you have to worry about where you're going to sleep that night. At least they had a place to sleep, a place to feel safe, and a place to feel like they weren't at risk of contracting a virus,” said Shaughnessy.
Abeyta was able to stay in a hotel for three months to get back on his feet.
“The motel was like, that was like, wow, that's a game-changer right there,” said Abeyta. “It was like two weeks. I got a job right away.”
Homes For All Veterans helped him secure an apartment, got him a bed, and now, his girlfriend is able to live with him. They’re both working and have already been promoted at the retail store they’re working at.
Many more veterans found themselves in a similar situation to Abeyta: homeless because of COVID-19. Now, the funding for these emergency programs is running out.
The funding is not, it wasn't meant to be permanent,” said Shaughnessy.
But Shaughnessy is working to find funding to make it permanent. He said whether through private grants or state and federal funding, money for temporary housing for veterans needs to be more easily available to organizations.
“Even setting the pandemic aside, which was the reason why this was available, I think that it would still be a really beneficial opportunity for individuals,” said Shaugnessy.
For Abeyta, the funding gave him more than an opportunity, it was a chance for a whole new life.
“I think of what I have. I owe to myself, but I give the gratitude. I owe to them for helping me give me that support,” said Abeyta. “You can do anything you want, sky's the limit, and I am proof of that. I didn't have nothing, you know, five t-shirts, a couple pair of shorts, some Wal-Mart shoes and now, you can have anything you want. I learned that in the military and that's a blessing.”
It's a blessing he hopes other vets will get the chance to have, too.
“We served our country. We're not entitled nothing, but there's support out there for us, and if you're a veteran that’s homeless, then seek it. It's out there.”
If you’d like to get involved with Homes For All Veterans, click HERE.