Veterans Affairs Secretary tours Anchorage homeless veterans event

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ANCHORAGE (KTUU) - The U.S. Secretary of Veterans Affairs toured an annual Anchorage event Friday that connects homeless veterans with social services.

“We have to do a better job finding those veterans in rural parts of this state who are hard to get to and get them into our VA system,“ said Secretary Robert Wilkie, who is now at the helm of the VA.

Bernard Shavings, an Alaska Native Navy veteran who has experienced homelessness in the past, echoed that sentiment. He said it’s more complicated serving people in the villages because of long travel distances.

Wilkie spoke about some of the successes the VA has had in Alaska, saying the state is “the template” for changes at the department, including testing out the new electronic health record.

Sen. Dan Sullivan, R - Alaska, came with Wilkie to Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport for the 26th annual Stand Down Anchorage event to speak about the oversized contribution Alaska Natives have made to the U.S. military.

At the event, hundreds of homeless veterans and those in jeopardy were given supplies including sleeping bags and bunny boots and connected to social services. Many took advantage of a free haircut and a shared a meal.

“A lot of us need it, we come home, we're lost, people push us away, thank God there are programs that do help us,” said William Schultz, a veteran of the U.S. Army, 82nd Airborne. “Thank God there are people who believe in us, care enough to help us.”

Schultz has lived on the streets for around 18 months, and was at the event to pick up a sleeping bag, shirt and supplies for winter. He says he is looking to get stable, permanent housing.

Jo Snow, a fellow U.S. Army vet, had experienced homelessness for around four years but turned her life around with help from the VA. Snow said that she now spends time volunteering to help other veterans with their paperwork to get services.

“My heart goes out to my brothers and sisters in the armed forces,” said Snow.

During a phone call to Channel 2, Nancy Burke, Housing and Homeless Services Coordinator with the Municipality of Anchorage, said a point-in-time count done in January found 73 homeless veterans living in Anchorage, with another 70 living in other parts of Alaska.

Robin Dempsey, program director of homeless family services at Catholic Social Services, said a $500,000 grant from the feds allowed them to help 105 households with a veteran in the past year.

Dempsey described some of the unique challenges that come with serving veterans, higher rates of PTSD mean that consistency and certainty are often more important than for the population in general.

Burke also described there are anecdotal accounts that some veterans struggle with crowded public housing, again due to PTSD.

Dempsey said that there are four people on the CSS team who serve homeless veterans, two of which are themselves veterans, a role they describe as a privilege.

Secretary Wilkie will address the Alaska Federation of Natives Annual Convention on Saturday at 9:25 a.m. Senator Dan Sullivan will address AFN at 9:40 a.m.