Help for Homeless Veterans

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Justa Center in Phoenix provides services for the homeless, some of whom are veterans. Barbara Lewkowitz, executive director of the Justa Center, will tell us more about what her organization does.

TED SIMONS: It's no secret that those who fought for our country sometimes end up on the streets. But many local homeless veterans are finding help at the Justa Center in Phoenix. Here to tell us more is Barbara Lewkowitz, executive director of the Justa Center. Welcome to "Arizona Horizon." Good to have you here.

BARBARA LEWKOWITZ: Thank you.

TED SIMONS: What is the Justa Center?

BARBARA LEWKOWITZ: Justa Center is a day resource center for homeless seniors over 55. And what we do is we try to give people dignity and respect to help them on the path of coming from the streets or from a shelter and moving them into a home, either an apartment, assisted living or sometimes go to hospice.

TED SIMONS: As far as those who show up at Justa Center, how many are veterans do you think?

BARBARA LEWKOWITZ: About 60% of the people we serve are veterans. Both men and women. And we specifically have a veterans advocate on staff to help them with getting their earned benefits. Sometimes, their proof of their service has been lost in a fire or they haven't been able to unearth it. They haven't accessed the V.A. in a while. So our role is to really put people on the path to have them access their earned benefits, and then move them along with other training and other activities so they can move off of the streets and into a home.

TED SIMONS: So it's not really a homeless shelter. You mentioned a day resource center where folks can get the information, the help they need?

BARBARA LEWKOWITZ: That's correct. Most of the people who are visiting Justa Center, they're either sleeping at a shelter, either at walk-ins, or they're on the street.

TED SIMONS: In terms of securing housing, in terms of securing employment, what does Justa Center do? Someone comes in, they're a veteran. Vietnam veteran, let's say, no house, no employment, need help, willing to get that help, what do you do? How do you deal with it?

BARBARA LEWKOWITZ: The first thing we do is to legitimize and help them get their documents. A lot of times if they've been on the streets for a while, they don't have their birth certificate, they don't have a driver's license, they don't have any type of I.D. Maybe they don't have access and so what happens is oftentimes when somebody is homeless, that not only gives them kind of an offset in their general health, but it gives you an offset sometimes in your emotional health too, and so Justa Center is a very warm place to be. People come in, they know that someone is there to help them. The veterans advocate and the resource specialist help them to get their benefits and once they get the benefits and we can try to get them some earned income, once that earned income is able to be accessed, then they can move into an apartment.

TED SIMONS: I would imagine something as simple as access to a telephone, access to a computer, it's got to be pretty important.

BARBARA LEWKOWITZ: Correct. We have computers available for our members, we call them members instead of clients. Computers are available, phones are available, we have three resource specialists, a veterans advocate, an MSW, we have also some spiritual guidance and we have a housing specialist. So it's a very intensive staff, everyone is around the day resource center and helping people. We give them help with their Social Security and also with their DES benefits. So it's a constant program of if you're willing to try to do something about your situation and want to get off the street we are helping you do that.

TED SIMONS: How can Justa Center help address the causes of homelessness? It sounds to me like there has to be a little bit of gumption and a little bit of interest of getting my life better. What about those who haven't gotten to that level yet?

BARBARA LEWKOWITZ: I think that what Justa Center offers, which is very important is really the warmth of a family. You know, if you have 130 people coming in every day, and the first thing that happens is you walk up and somebody says hello to you by name, would you like a cup of coffee? Would you like to take a shower? The simple things, would you like a hygiene kit for when you go out on the street again? The simple things of life like that, being able to touch the people and show them some dignity is very important for them to say all right, I know someone cares about me and I'm going to see what I can do to help myself.

TED SIMONS: Do you notice a difference between veteran members as opposed to those who had not served in the military?

BARBARA LEWKOWITZ: I would say that the veteran members have more of a tendency to have some emotional difficulties and challenges. Sometimes, it's from being in the service and seeing what they've seen. Also sometimes some of the Vietnam veterans, they feel a little bit of disrespect about their service during that time and that particular war. But the most important thing is no one who served our country should really ever lack for a benefit or for a home. And it sort of a shame that we're not treating them with the respect that they deserve. And so we're especially sensitive to veterans.

TED SIMONS: Indeed. And it sounds like these are people that have few resources, few friends, few family members and have real medical issues and other concerns and challenges.

BARBARA LEWKOWITZ: They do. They do. We have a nurse on staff also. She's obviously, not able to prescribe medications but she can take care of some of the basic things that happen to people on the street, ulcers. Also, there's some long-term health problems that some of the veterans have, not just PTSD, but maybe a nutritional deficiency or some of them might develop Parkinson's or some other neurological diseases from something they might have been exposed to.

TED SIMONS: As far as the Justa Center is concerned, I know you have the best for vets event. What's that all about?

BARBARA LEWKOWITZ: Best for vets is specifically to help us be able to help our homeless veterans. It's a night of a food culinary challenge. We have 12 of the senior community from around the valley vying to be named the best culinary food presented at that event. We have three celebrity chefs judging the food. For $40, somebody can come and enjoy a whole night of casino gambling, free food, free drinks and really know that they're helping homeless veterans.

TED SIMONS: And helping Justa Center. As far as biggest need at the center, what do you got?

BARBARA LEWKOWITZ: Biggest need at the center is really donations. And that's because we take no city, state or federal moneys and so 88% of what we raise is really from individuals or from people -- faith community that are helping us out.

TED SIMONS: So as far as the best for vets event which would benefit Justa Center and help you take care of some of these veterans now, when is it, where is it?

BARBARA LEWKOWITZ: It's November 20th, it's at the Abilities 360 center, that's at 5025 east Washington.

TED SIMONS: And that's close to the Stockyards restaurant, is that the idea? It sounds like you're doing great work over there and we've got about 20 seconds left. Have the needs changed over the years do you think?

BARBARA LEWKOWITZ: I think, especially there's a bigger gap now for seniors who are homeless. The largest growing population in the United States really are as baby boomers age and become older, and there's a gap that most people don't reach, they're not at 62 so before you get your benefits at 62 or 65, for those people who are kind of at a lower age of that, they're missing out and we need to help them. They're falling through the gaps.

TED SIMONS: You're doing great work. Thank you so much for joining us. We appreciate it.

BARBARA LEWKOWITZ: Thank you

Barbara Lewkowitz:Executive director of the Justa Center

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