Former homeless veteran takes message to Capitol Hill

By Loretto J. Hulse, Herald staff writer May 21, 2010 

A former Kennewick resident was on Capital Hill on Thursday to testify about ways to fight homelessness among the nation's veterans.

Mike Brown testified before a joint session of the Senate Appropriations and Military Construction and Veterans Affairs subcommittees at the invitation of Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash.

Within the Appropriations Committee, Murray is chair of the subcommittee on Transportation, Housing and Urban Development and Related Agencies and also serves on the Military Construction and Veterans Affairs subcommittee.

"Every night, as many as 100,000 veterans experience homelessness," Sen. Murray said. "Many of these veterans have lived on the street for years and are plagued by significant challenges such as mental illness and substance abuse. In order to heal and remain in stable housing, these veterans will need a great deal of support. But there is no question that they have earned that support."

Murray and other members of the panel were seeking information on how to help veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan and veterans of previous wars from becoming homeless and living on the streets.

Brown, 54, a Vietnam-era Army veteran now living in Walla Walla, told his own story of going from homelessness and meth addiction to now helping other veterans find stable housing.

In 1994, Brown was married, a father of two, and working as a transit driver in Kennewick. When he became addicted to methamphetamine, he lost everything.

"My job, my family, my dignity and my home," he said. "The next nine years I spent using, on the streets and avoiding the law."

In 2005, he was given two choices: Get help or go to prison.

He sought treatment at the Walla Walla Veterans Affairs Medical Center. Later, he spent two years in the Corps of Recovery Discovery, or CORD, a transitional housing program. Brown now is an assistant program manager and case manager for CORD who helps other veterans put their lives back together.

"The difference for the vets coming behind me is now there are Housing and Urban Development cash vouchers to enable them to attain housing in a much quicker and affordable way" than the program he was enrolled in, Brown said.

"One of the barriers in our small community is the lack of gainful employment that pays a living wage. The vouchers are a huge benefit to enable these veterans to independent living," he said.

"Since 2005, I have gone from living on the streets, eating out of Dumpsters, to living independently, working full time and this past weekend I was able to give my daughter away at her wedding, which was one of the proudest moments of my life," Brown said.

At the hearing, Stephen Norman, King County Housing Authority executive director, also discussed the challenges he sees in Seattle and the surrounding region.

The hearing also included testimony from Eric Shinseki, the U.S. Veterans Secretary General, U.S. Housing Secretary Shaun Donovan and Barbara Poppe, executive director of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness.

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