Legacy of Leadership

This is a guest post, written by Mike Nielsen

MNielsenPodium04.01.15I know some of you have heard this before, but I am retiring–this time for good. I now have seven grandchildren to dote over and many thousands of miles yet to pedal on my bike.

As I reflect on the last 43 years, it is clear that despite all we have accomplished collectively, we still have a serious crisis of homelessness in America. Secretary Julián Castro of HUD has said, “We must never accept homelessness as a part of American life.” Yet, after observing 43 years of federal and local homelessness initiatives cycle in and out of vogue, I am bewildered that homelessness is not only still accepted as part of American life by many, but that homeless Americans are often treated with such disdain.

I have traveled all over the world by bicycle and it is always painful to try to explain some of our national attitudes about poverty and homelessness. There is just no explanation that is defensible. But here I am 43 years later still traveling by bike and still trying to explain.

Recently, I have been focusing on housing and services for homeless Veterans. Veterans are disproportionately represented in the American homeless population. They comprise only 8 percent of all Americans, but represent nearly 20 percent of homeless persons. The problems that Veterans face, and the military culture that has helped shape them, is often not well understood by mainstream agencies. This was certainly true for me when we started developing our first Veteran housing program at St Andrews Housing Group (now Imagine Housing) in 2008. As I was trying to sell the concept to the Board, I had a Veteran tell me that if we were going to be of any help to Veterans I needed to have a better understanding of Veteran culture. “For instance,” he queried, “Do you know what a DD 214 is? Do you know what OEF and OIF stand for? Do you know who the NVA were or what MST is?”

Well, I sadly knew the answer to only one of those questions.  But my ignorance of military and Veteran culture at the time, as it turns out, was not that unusual among social service and housing providers. I have since seen way too many instances when a Veteran meets an intake worker only to get a blank stare when they start talking the language of their military experience. So the Vet just walks.

Unfortunately, we cannot afford to let Veterans walk back into homelessness, back into untreated PTSD and substance abuse, because the stakes for those Veterans are potentially deadly. A Veteran commits suicide approximately every hour in this country. At the height of the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts we were losing more soldiers to suicide than to combat in both wars combined. About 40 percent of Middle East Veterans come back with a diagnosable mental illness and others return with traumatic brain injury, military related sexual trauma, addictions, and domestic violence. Poverty among Veterans is soaring with 17,000 Veteran households here in King County alone living below 200% of federal poverty level.

“We need HDC and its members to continue to educate the public and professionals alike about homelessness and affordable housing.”

The Housing Development Consortium (HDC) is one of the real hopes we have locally to help impact some of these issues. While I was Director of St Andrews Housing Group (SAHG), HDC worked tirelessly with us as we sought to elevate public awareness on the Eastside and tackle misinformed attitudes about homelessness. When I retired from SAHG, and then found myself un-retiring to work at Community Psychiatric Clinic, HDC once again stepped forward to help tackle a lack of coherent north-county housing strategy and resources. HDC staff organized stakeholders and worked with north county cities and agencies in ways that have resulted in new partnerships. These partnerships are now producing housing and solutions to homelessness in north-county.

We need HDC and its members to continue to educate the public and professionals alike about homelessness and affordable housing. However, we also need HDC and its members to lend support to efforts that will better meet the specialized service and housing needs of Veterans. I urge HDC and its members to support and become involved with the King County Veterans Consortium, the County Executive’s Regional Veteran’s Initiative and related local efforts to end Veteran homelessness.

My many thanks are owed to HDC members and staff, past and present. I have learned so much from you and have enjoyed the work that I have had a chance to share with you. Maybe someday, when I am again cycling through Viet Nam or Nepal, I will be able to finally explain that the richest nation on earth no longer accepts homelessness as part of American life.

Over the past 43 years Mike has had worked in juvenile corrections, inpatient addictions, community behavioral health and affordable housing. In that time he has developed many innovative and award winning programs including this region’s only Sobering Center and one of only two HUD SafeHavens in Seattle. Mike has overseen the creation of 20 new affordable housing projects during his time at Community Psychiatric Clinic and as Executive Director of St Andrews Housing Group (now Imagine Housing). In recent years he has led development of CPC’s Veteran Services, including the recently completed Valor Apartments for homeless Veterans and a rapid rehousing program that houses 450 new homeless Veteran
households annually.