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Local Girl Scout highlights vet homelessness

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President Barack Obama talks with local Girl Scout Krystal Shirrel (far left), along with other Gold Award winners from across the country, in the Oval Office on June 8. - OFFICIAL WHITE HOUSE PHOTO BY PETE SOUZA VIA FLICKR
  • Official White House Photo by Pete Souza via Flickr
  • President Barack Obama talks with local Girl Scout Krystal Shirrel (far left), along with other Gold Award winners from across the country, in the Oval Office on June 8.

After receiving the Girl Scout Gold Award, the program's highest achievement, Krystal Shirrel set off for the Oval Office. President Barack Obama wanted to recognize her efforts on behalf of homeless vets.

"The statistics are overwhelming ... no one fighting for our country shouldn't have a roof over their head," Shirrel, a 2012 graduate of Brownsburg High School, said. "I encourage people to help and realize there is an issue."

Shirrel's efforts coincide with Obama's initiative "Opening Doors: Federal Strategic Plan to Prevent and End Homelessness," which aims to help end veteran homelessness in addition to chronic homelessness by mainstreaming housing, health, education and human service programs.

First Lady Michelle Obama along with Jill Biden, wife of Vice President Joseph Biden, have teamed up to help veterans integrate into civilian society while coping with issues caused by being in war. They've titled their campaign Joining Forces. The project's goal is to mobilize all sectors of society to help veterans and their families by providing support in finding employment, and receiving medical care and education.

According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, on a single night in January this year, 67,495 homeless veterans spent the night on the street and an estimated 144,843 veterans spent the night in a transitional housing program or emergency shelter. However, these numbers have recently decreased from years past.

While the number of homeless veterans has been declining over the past three years, this is not the case in Indianapolis. On Jan. 25 this year, the Coalition for Homelessness Intervention and Prevention recorded the number of individuals homeless in Indianapolis that given date. While homelessness across all groups increased by 5 percent, homelessness among veterans increased by almost 35 percent from 262 veterans without permanent housing in 2011 to 351 veterans in 2012.

Organizations, such as Horizon House and Hoosier Veterans Assistance Foundation (HVAF), have noticed the increase of veterans in need of assistance. Debra Des Vignes, marketing coordinator for HVAF, said her organization's waiting list for veterans in need of housing is longer than normal at 62 veterans.

"The increase in number of homeless veterans in Indianapolis is due in part because of all the wars," Des Vignes said. "Many are coming back looking for jobs."

While many veterans are searching for employment, factors such as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and need for wider-ranging skill sets, cause veterans to be more susceptible to homelessness, advocates said. Veterans with PTSD, traumatic brain injury, or sexual trauma are at a higher risk for homelessness due to difficulties they may have in holding a steady job. According to the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness (USICH), about half of homeless veterans have a serious mental illness or a history of issues with the legal system.

Even if a veteran does not have PTSD or another mental illness, many individuals who return from service realize they lack certain skill sets necessary for the job market. "Some veterans have a specialized skill, so when they come home, they struggle with having certain job skills needed with finding a job. They need that opportunity to learn them," Des Vignes said.

In addition, 70 percent of homeless veterans have substance abuse problems, according to USICH. Indianapolis resident Ralph McClury, Sr. has experienced this. McClury served in the U.S. Air Force in 1973 before he was medically discharged.

"When I got out in '73, my life was great. I worked ... until I started drinking. I struggled with alcoholism off and on," McClury said. "I turned to drugs. That's something I wish I had never done. My daughter got taken away from me in 2010, which led me to HVAF."

McClury's situation has improved since visiting HVAF. He regained custody of his six-year-old daughter in February this year, and he moved into an apartment with the help of HVAF in December 2011.

McClury's life is not completely steady yet. Due to complications with an old 1997 ticket, he lost his driver's license and will not get it back until he pays it off. As a result of his situation, McClury and his daughter must use the bus system while struggling to save up money for the ticket and paying the bills.

McClury's currently enrolled in a training program at Goodwill, and is waiting to be placed somewhere. However, finding a job makes it difficult with a daughter who he accompanies every morning to school on the bus system. A full-time job isn't an option for him since he already has a full-time job taking care of his young daughter.

His focus is on his daughter's life. He's spend a great deal of time making her feel at home in her new room. As a result, he doesn't have the money to completely furnish the rest of the apartment he recently moved into.

Despite these struggles, McClury said he is grateful for the progress he has made. "HVAF really showed me and gave me the tools to stay clean and sober. If something comes up in my life, I don't need the bottle anymore," McClury said. "All my past failures have gotten me here today. The main thing of all, I've got peace with myself."

[Editor's note: The lead to this story was slightly tweaked since it was first posted June 19.]

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