A heart problem caused Army veteran Carrie Russell to become homeless, but she has a home in Newburg thanks to RX: Housing Veterans, a program for homeless veterans. | Photo by Michael L. Jones

Carrie Russell’s life fell apart this summer. A heart ailment made it impossible for her to continue working as a truck driver. Unable to work and with little family support, the 57-year old Army veteran was forced to move into a Salvation Army Center for Hope, a transitional living shelter.

But after a call to Veterans Affairs, Russell found out she had more resources than she could imagine. She is spending this Veterans Day in a home in the Newburg neighborhood thanks to RX: Housing Veterans, a program aimed at keeping homeless veterans off the streets of Louisville.

“I am so blessed that God led them to help me because I didn’t have nothing,” Russell said. “I couldn’t get no help because I’d only been at my job for 10 months so that cut me out on the short- and long-term disability, and they wouldn’t fire me. If it wasn’t for being a veteran, I would not have made it.”

Coalition for the Homeless Director Natalie Harris said her agency started Rx: Housing Veterans in 2015 because a large number of veterans were showing up in homeless shelters not knowing how to take advantage of the aid available to them.

RX: Housing Veterans has helped more than 1,000 people, Harris said. This has allowed Louisville to reached Functional Zero when it comes to homeless vets, meaning the city is now housing veterans as quickly as they become homeless.

Coalition for the Homeless Director Natalie Harris said Louisville is housing veterans as soon as they become homeless. | Courtesy of Natalie Harris

“At the time we initially did the prescription housing veterans program, we had approximately 25 to 30 new veterans becoming homeless every month. During the first year and a half of the project, we housed 838 veterans, and then we had to continue to keep housing veterans at that rate, 25 to 30 a month, or the numbers would build back up again. Now, the number of new homeless veterans has decreased to about 15 to 19 a month,” Harris explained.

Veterans have more resources available to them than the general homeless population, which numbers 6,000 in Louisville, Harris said. Veterans Affairs pays a per diem to homeless shelters to give veterans priority, and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing program provides vouchers to help veterans find housing in Southern Indiana, Louisville and the surrounding counties.

Harris said the Louisville Metro Housing Authority also offers additional Section 8 housing vouchers for people with military service who can not get help from Veterans Affairs.

“When we started the program, we realized that there were certain people that you and I would call veterans, but the VA does not consider them veterans. They have military service, but they had other than an honorable discharge, or there is some other factor that makes them not eligible for the VASH program. That’s why the housing authority stepped in,” Harris said.

RX: Housing coordinates services between more than 15 agencies, including Veterans Affairs, Family Health Centers, Volunteers of America Mid-States, Legal Aid Society, The Healing Place, The Salvation Army, St. Vincent de Paul and Wayside Christian Mission.

Because of the program’s success in ending the backlog of homeless veterans, Harris said, her agency’s role in the program has changed. Volunteers of America and Veterans Affairs have taken the lead, and the coalition simply collects the statistics for all the agencies involved.

Harris said she had found there are three main groups of homeless veterans: people returning from service who need assistance because they no longer have connections in the community; people whose military skills do not translate well to the civilian workforce; and people suffering from post-traumatic stress or addiction issues.

The Healing Place Monday is scheduled to announce a new program, funded by two grants from Veterans Affairs, that also aims to provide long-term housing, as well as social and medical help, to veterans who struggle with addiction. The nonprofit has provided services to several thousand veterans during the past five years.

Russell, who served in the Army from 1979 to 1982, is just one of the veterans who needed the safety net RX: Housing Veterans provides. After learning that she couldn’t work, Russell gave notice at her apartment because she wanted to maintain her credit.

She said Veterans Affairs had a space at the Salvation Army waiting for her the day she moved out. It took her four days to get a voucher, and Volunteers of America not only paid her deposit but gave her funds to purchase household equipment.

Now, things are starting to look up for Russell. She has a new pacemaker, and her doctors have cleared her to return to work in a few weeks.

Russell said she will never forget what RX: Housing Veterans did for her. After she gets back on her feet, she intends to volunteer for the program. She also has talked to her new landlord about buying the three-bedroom home she is renting. If she is able to do that, Russell intends to open it up to other homeless veterans.

“All the veterans need to know there is hope and help out there for the ones who want it,” Russell said. “I feel really blessed to have a home and a job to go back to. Now, I want to do whatever I can to help.”

Michael L. Jones

Michael L. Jones

    Michael L. Jones, a freelance journalist and author, covers communities for Insider Louisville. His latest book "Louisville Jug Music: From Earl McDonald to the National Jubilee" (History Press) received the 2014 Samuel Thomas Book Award from the Louisville Historical League. In addition to his contributions to Insider, his writing appears regularly in LEO Weekly, Louisville Magazine, Food & Dining – Louisville Edition, and Who’s Who Louisville: African American Profiles. He also sits on the board of directors of the National Jug Band Jubilee. Jones and his wife, Melissa Amos-Jones, a physical therapist, live in the Kenwood Hills neighborhood near Iroquois Park.