Jonathan Achuff smiled as he chatted openly with a friend over a grilled hamburger with all the fixings, and a bottle of water. The two men, both Veterans, talked about their new apartments, help they had received through VA for mental health issues and how long they had been clean from drugs and alcohol.
Behind his gray hair topped with a baseball cap, tired eyes and toothy grin, Achuff was noticeably uncomfortable as he revealed life events that led him to homelessness until about two years ago – until he sought help through VA.
On July 3, Achuff, along with about 50 other Veterans, came to the C.W. Bill Young VA Medical Center for the second Annual Housing First Picnic. Put on by the Bay Pines VA Healthcare System’s (VAHCS) Social Work Service, the picnic was held specifically for Veterans enrolled in VA’s Housing First Program – a model that prioritizes housing and then assists Veterans with access to healthcare and other important resources.
According to Achuff, attending the event for a second year in a row was symbolic and reflective of two successful years of stable living and recovery.
Achuff, 52, medically discharged in from the U.S. Air Force in 1979, lives in a small one bedroom apartment in St. Petersburg, Fla. – a far cry from the overpass he called home just a few years ago.
“After I got out of the military, I hooked up with the wrong people,” Achuff said. “I bounced around from job to job and started using drugs.”
Drugs and uncertainty eventually resulted in a divorce from his first wife, separation from his two daughters, and a big move from New Jersey to Michigan in 1990. Shortly after arriving in Michigan, he was hired by one company to install office furniture and by another to run wiring for a communications company. Paychecks became steady.
He was eventually married to a woman he was living with and had two sons.
“I had good jobs and a steady income…I paid my bills, but also bought more drugs,” he said.
Achuff’s seemingly normal life was anything but stable as he later left his second wife and returned to New Jersey in 1999. For the next several years, he continued to struggle with drug use. “Home,” in the traditional sense of the word, became fleeting for the once proud U.S. service member as he slept wherever he could find a place to rest his head.
Around 2010, Achuff moved in with a friend in Alabama for a fresh start. Soon after arriving, he was presented with a job opportunity in Orlando, Fla.
“I got a call about a job in Orlando…it was a good job,” he explained. “I pulled together all my money to buy a bus ticket and headed to Florida. They (his prospective employer) said they would pick me up at the bus stop.”
In an optimistic fashion, Achuff made it to the bus stop…but his greeting party never arrived.
“I waited, and waited, but no one showed up. I had no money, no home.”
Achuff described this moment as a major turning point in his life. He was now homeless, found a spot under a nearby overpass and turned to alcohol.
Several months passed before he got some help through an emergency department at a local hospital. After being discharged, he sought out several homeless shelters and rehab facilities with little success – even being kicked out of a one shelter for alcohol use.
The Road to Recovery
Finally, in early 2012, Achuff was connected with the Coalition for the Homeless of Central Florida – a large nonprofit organization that provides services for individuals who are homeless and those at risk. There, he met a service officer who informed him about programs available through VA and how to apply for health care.
“I never really knew about VA,” he said. “At this point in my life, I didn’t really care about anything – I just knew I needed help.”
The service officer gave Achuff a bus ticket to the Orlando VA Medical Center where he was quickly enrolled for VA health care. After receiving immediate services in Orlando, he was transferred to C.W. Bill Young VA Medical Center for various outpatient mental health services and at the same time was connected to the healthcare system’s homeless program.
After spending a short time in VA contracted housing in St. Petersburg, Achuff was accepted into the Housing First program and moved into his own apartment – his first real home in more than 13 years.
“I have had my own place for almost two years now,” he said smiling. “My own bedroom, kitchen, living room…and I live close to the hospital (C.W. Bill Young VA Medical Center), which is nice.”
He explained that he visits the medical center three to four times per week for various medical appointments and continues to make positive strides to improve his physical and mental health.
“The VA has helped me become successful and turn my life around,” he said. “They have been there for me every step of the way and my outlook on life is much different. I am happy again. I am proud of where I am right now.”
Even though Achuff has made significant strides to improve his life, he still remembers his time under the overpass in Orlando.
“My biggest fear is to go back to that place,” he said. “At the same time, I use that same fear as motivation. I keep that memory in my mind as a reminder where I don’t want to be and then look at how far I’ve come.” The last piece of happiness, Achuff said, is to reconnect with his kids and once again become part of their lives.
“Knowing that I have not been around for my kids because of the decisions I made in the past really hurts. They all have kids now…I’ve never seen my grandchildren.” He went on to explain that he has infrequent contact with his children with the exception of one of his sons.
“I believe I am in a stage of my life when I can begin repairing my relationship with my kids,” he said. “I have the VA to thank for that, and it is something I am really looking forward to.”
Housing First: A Model of Success
Achuff is one of 70 Veterans enrolled in the Bay Pines VA HCS’s Housing First program – just one of several VA programs available for homeless Veterans, and those at risk for homelessness. Bay Pines is one of only 14 VA healthcare systems across the country with an active Housing First program.
The Housing First model does not try to determine who is “housing ready” or demand treatment prior to housing. Instead, treatment and other support services are wrapped around Veterans as they obtain and maintain permanent housing through the program.
“The Housing First approach is to identify Veterans who are chronically homeless and place them in permanent housing as quickly as possible,” said Christopher Kelly, LCSW, Housing First Supervisor, Bay Pines VAHCS, “But the model really only begins there. The Veterans receive the ongoing support of a multidisciplinary team who provide comprehensive services to assist them in maintaining their housing and in any goals they identify toward their own vision of wellness and recovery.”
“The model advocates housing as the foundation from which Veterans can access important health care and supportive services in order to become stable and develop long term self-sufficiency,” he said.
Income, sobriety or involvement in treatment or other services are not required as a condition for getting housing. Services provided to Veterans outside of housing are voluntary and are not a condition for staying in the program.
Supportive services are delivered to Veterans from initial engagement in the program through the housing search and continue after placement. Services focus on promoting housing stability and achieving other personal goals related to well-being and recovery. Intensity and duration of supportive services varies, depending on the individualized needs and goals of each Veteran.
The program focuses its efforts on those Veterans who have been struggling with chronic homelessness and who are suffering from chronic mental health issues.
“Housing First, like any of the great homeless programs and services offered by the VA, is specifically tailored to assist those men and women who need us the most,” Kelly said.
“Through these programs, we help these heroes get back on their feet and support them on their own path to recovery. We work to help them reestablish a sense of well-being, confidence, and independence. It’s an honor to serve those men and women who so honorably served us and sacrificed so much for our country.”
To learn more about VA homeless programs, please visit www.baypines.va.gov/services/homeless or www.va.gov/homeless. To help a Veteran who is homeless or at imminent risk of becoming homeless, please call 1-877-4AID-VET or 1-877-424-3838.