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Remembering: Heroes Without Homes

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Memorial Day barbecues are being planned as we prepare to remember the millions of veterans who have served our nation, protecting and defending those less fortunate as well as our way of life. For some of these veterans, the idea of a backyard barbecue is far from their reality.

Back in February, FACETS and other local nonprofits ventured beyond our backyards in to the woods to find men and women who are chronically homeless around Fairfax County. Our ventures "deep into the woods" were really only a few steps away from upscale communities and high-end shopping centers.

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This journey was the start of the 100,000 Homes Fairfax Campaign's "Registry Week," when volunteers went into the woods and other places where the homeless are living in order to count, photograph, and get names and histories for these individuals. In all, we interviewed 462 people.

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We learned a lot that week about the chronically homeless, including the fact that many of the homeless were holding down jobs but still could not afford housing. We also learned that 10 percent of these people were veterans -- entitled to benefits that could help them get back on their feet.

As the head of a nonprofit serving vulnerable and homeless people in the greater Fairfax area, this was not news to us. In fact, nearly 25 percent of those we serve throughout the year in our various programs are veterans. In the past few years, we have seen an increase in the number of veterans that are severely mentally ill and older seeking help. The good news is that we can work to make their lives better by breaking down barriers and connecting them to needed support.

One such hero -- Joe, a veteran from the Iraq/Afghanistan Wars, was living in the woods in Fairfax, and came into FACET's Hypothermia Prevention Response Program, a partnership between the government, nonprofits and the faith community to provide shelter, hot meals, services, and companionship for our area's homeless.

Even though he was homeless, Joe was attending NOVA under the GI Bill in hopes of attaining an Associate's degree. Through the Hypothermia Program, he was able to find indoor places to study for his various classes. Working with FACETS' staff, Joe was urged to meet with a mental health worker, which he credits with helping him overcome issues related to post-traumatic stress. Today, Joe lives in supportive housing where he continues to have access to needed social services. Best of all, he earned his degree and is working.

There are many other veterans like Joe. We must offer them a chance to fully participate and succeed in the democracy that they helped protect. Unfortunately, sequestration threatens our ability to offer them housing as housing vouchers have fallen victim to cuts.

As we honor our veterans this Memorial Day, we must find solutions to our vexing issues that prevent us from helping our nation's homeless heroes so that we can welcome more of them home.