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Independence from Homelessness: A Veteran's Story

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"If I survived, they can as well." As I recently read through an email from Shelley Gilbert, this statement struck a chord with me. "I become stronger as a person, and I, myself, am overcome with a feeling of joy every time I share my story," she went on. "I remain as transparent as possible, knowing that someone in the room, or someone they know, has experienced what I have. They need to hear that it doesn't have to last forever."

I already knew why Shelley spoke to the community about homelessness and generously shared her story with others: so they could better understand what happens to people on the street. But these words added more meaning, more depth, to the reason for her service. She does it to save lives, the same way her life was, in her eyes, spared when she called Friendship Place's Veterans First Program looking for help several months ago.

Among many great qualities, one thing that is striking about Shelley is her confidence. This is not just ordinary self-confidence. This is the external manifestation of what she believes deeply inside. The fact that things do get better, eventually, shines through along with her desire to impact others experiencing homelessness. Shelley wants their lives to get better and she freely shares her inner strength with them. "That warm, fuzzy feeling when you have touched another life is immeasurable," she says.

On the night she hit rock bottom and put her head down at a bus stop in the dead of winter, I can imagine how her strong will and faith carried her through.

Shelley served in the Coast Guard and was trained as a medical technician. It's so obvious why she's perfect for this kind of work. She has so much humanity in her. She once told me that one evening before she lost her home, she left the Baltimore hospital where she worked; and as she crossed the city, she was heartbroken to see one of the patients she had worked with that day, begging.

She is a dialysis technician and the thought that this fellow could live on the street while depending on regular dialysis treatment haunted her for a long time.

Shelley is also a mother and a grandmother. I like to say that about people who have lived on the street when it is the case, so everybody knows they belong to someone, the way we all do. And also because "belonging" goes a long way in rebuilding lives.

Shelley says great things about the assistance she received from our Supportive Services for Veterans and their Families (SSVF) Program. The Department of Veterans Affairs designed SSVF to offer timely help - and just enough of it - that results in almost immediate gains. This is precisely the way this program works. Shelley received a limited amount of financial assistance to rent an apartment for herself, her daughter and grandchildren. Then came some help to reorganize - a job application followed by an offer in her field. And before she knew it, Shelley had her life back.

She now owns a car she financed on her own.

When she talks to me about her journey over the last few months, she emphasizes how empowered and proud she feels. It's obvious that this feeling comes, in part, from the fact that the program helped her just enough, and nothing more. Shelley is proud of the fact that she has mostly rebuilt her life on her own with limited, but key, assistance.

As with other veterans we've worked with this year, the feeling that we knew they only needed a bit of help to stabilize is a very powerful one, a motivator in itself, really.

Shelley is very clear about her message. "I speak from the perspective of a young African American woman who is a veteran of the armed forces," she says. She wants to break molds, dispel myths and foster a new kind of understanding, among other issues, of the unique presence and struggles of women on the street.

Maybe this is why she was quoted in The Guardian in April after she spoke at the National Alliance to End Homelessness's press conference. There was a new, crisp voice with a strong message in the room that morning and the reporter from The Guardian knew it.

This 4th of July, Shelley will be with her family, looking back on everything that's happened in the last year, so much good after so much hardship, with the feeling that they have put homelessness behind them.

For me, knowing that a veteran is home and safe with her loved ones will add a whole new dimension to this Independence Day.