When Tommy “Doc” Holliday finished serving in the military, he never knew he would be facing the challenge of finding an adequate place to sleep at night by the age of 57.
Holliday is just one of the many homeless veterans in eastern Idaho. With the national average of homeless vets standing at an astonishing 20 percent, spokespeople from the Bannock County Veterans Services estimate there are almost 60 living in the local region.
Melissa Hartman is an officer for the Veterans Services and said she has noticed this becoming an increasing problem in the amount of female veterans as well as their families.
“What is tolerable for homelessness?” Hartman said. “Is it OK for one family to be homeless? I just don't believe it's OK to allow just one of our heroes to be homeless.”
Hartman said the number of homeless veterans she has seen in the area is not an accurate representation of the actual amount since she is only able to base her numbers off those who showed up to the Homeless Stand Down back in October. She said the only way the homeless were to have known about the event is if they lived in close proximity to the area. So Hartman implied this number could actually be a lot larger spanning across the entire eastern region of the state.
The Southeastern Idaho Community Action Agency has been an active part in helping the homeless veterans in the area find a way to get their feet planted in the job market. After SEICAA received a $25,000 grant this past year, it remodeled the old Freedom LZ Veterans Shelter so it can now provide a comfortable place for these veterans to live.
However, in addition to the Freedom LZ shelter housing up to eight people, SEICAA's Jefferson House only holds a mere four individuals. With only 12 rooms available, this leaves the organization looking at a long waiting list of veterans needing a warm place to sleep.
SEICAA's Veterans Services Coordinator Tom Vialpando is a military veteran himself, and has dedicated the majority of his time toward helping these homeless vets find a place they can call home while they try to get back on their feet. He said there are many factors leading to homelessness: mental illness, substance abuse, and even domestic violence. But Vialpando believes the one possible common denominator stems from post traumatic stress disorder, which is often swept under the rug.
“Up until a few years ago, PTSD was not recognized by the Veterans Affairs, but recently it has been,” Vialpando said.
He also mentioned vets are often “proud” and tend to not ask for help when needed.
Both Hartman and Vialpando mentioned there might be an increase in the number of homeless veterans in the next few months because there is a large number of soldiers living in the region who served a significant time in Iraq and Afghanistan during periods such as Operation New Dawn and Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Hartman said they are planning on working with county officials in order to raise awareness for this issue of homeless veterans living on the streets of our community. One thing both she and Vialpando said they would like to see is a center built for women who have served and are now homeless since the only two shelters in the community can only house men. This means homeless families of veterans will be forced to split up.
But the homeless veterans have not been completely overlooked during this holiday season.
Various organizations in the community teamed up to raise a multitude of gifts for the veterans who are currently living under SEICAA's housing services. Bannock County Commissioner Steve Hadley, who also happens to be a military man himself, came out to honor those who helped raise these gift donations on Monday night.
American Legion Auxiliary President Barbara Wadlow helped organize Monday evening's event and said she was overwhelmed at the outpouring of support from the community for these veterans.
“All I have to do is send an email and right like that I have a response,” Wadlow said. “'What do you need in order to do this for the veterans?' And it's just really, really special. And it's not just during Christmas. The community does this all the time.”
Vialpando also gave a speech with accolades toward the community as well.
“If Pocatello puts their mind to something, and the community gets behind them, then it usually happens,” Vialpando said.
Photos of Holliday's family decorated the walls in his room. He said thinking about them helps get him through each day and motivates him to keep striving to get back out there fighting – this time not through war, but for his own future.
Follow Kaitlin on Twitter; @KaitlinLoukides