published Wednesday, April 23rd, 2014

Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke establishes coalition to tackle veterans' homelessness

Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke delivers the State of the City address Monday at the Chattanoogan.
Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke delivers the State of the City address Monday at the Chattanoogan.
Photo by John Rawlston.

Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke signed an executive order Tuesday to create a task force to bring together community leaders, service providers and veterans to help "eradicate chronic veterans' homelessness" by the end of 2016.

Prior to signing the order, Berke sought input from members of University of Tennessee at Chattanooga veterans groups on how to best address issues facing returning veterans.

"What we're doing, essentially, is much more on the side of how do we as a city pull together the resources from the nonprofit side, from the counseling side, from our housing side, and put all those into one structured sensible experience, so that we can take the chronically homeless veterans and get them the support and help they need so they're not living in garages downtown," Berke said.

The Chattanooga Chapter of Veterans Affairs puts the number of homeless veterans in the Scenic City at about 150 at any given time, about 20 percent of which are "chronically homeless," according to a news release from the Mayor's office.

Veterans at the discussion said that issues they've faced in the transition from military to civilian life include a lack of ease in transferring military certifications to civilian opportunities, trouble adjusting to the difference in structure and trouble relating to peers -- both because of the difference in age and in experience.

"I remember last semester, which was my first semester... sitting in my class, and I looked around -- I was the only veteran in there ... and I remember having a very succinct thought, I'm the only one who's been shot at and shot back in this room," said Jacob Kays, a veteran of the U.S. Army infantry and secretary for the UTC Student Veterans Organization. "And that's been a big hurdle in being able to find a way to connect with people that just don't understand."

The lack of structured assistance, such as a chain of command to go through, was another problem identified by vets.

"I think veterans reach out, and things aren't done to what is normally done and how things are normally operating -- it all goes back down to structure -- frustration sets in, and the feeling of security becomes, 'I'm not comfortable with the situation. I'm tired of going through loopholes to go through another loophole,'" said Zachary Holcomb, a veteran of the United States Marine Corps and treasurer for the UTC veterans.

And the veterans agreed that although the military branches try to provide information and assistance to help veterans readjust to civilian life in the exit process at the end of their service, that help and information is often lacking.

Berke said he wanted input from veterans to make sure that the support offered by the city was structured as effectively as possible.

"So, when you tell me things about it's more comfortable talking to a veteran, that allows us to think about how we structure the support services that veterans need, to be most effective, so we don't spin our wheels putting money into things that are going to end up going to waste," Berke said.

Berke said that he would be naming task force members over the next few weeks, and the first meeting should take place in early June.

The task force was set up to identify the best resources to help homeless veterans, examine prior efforts related to ending veteran homelessness, determine what causes needs to be met, suggest time frames to implement proposals, identify the best practices of other cities in addressing this, propose specific steps to achieve the task force's goals and prioritize needs and strategies to help meet these goals by the deadline, according to the executive order.

Contact staff writer Alex Harris at aharris@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6592.

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