No Veteran Left Behind
Off the Cuff with Kirsten Sobieski
“Our motto is we don’t leave our wounded behind,” explains Kirsten Sobieski, executive director of Milwaukee Homeless Veterans Initiative (MHVI). As one who has served, Sobieski witnessed first hand the multitude of issues facing veterans. It is with this experience that she and the MHVI staff have formed connections with homeless and at-risk veterans through programming intended to help them “reach and maintain their highest level of independence.” With winter fast approaching and the need for homeless veterans services as necessary as ever, Sobieski recently took the time to discuss bureaucratic roadblocks, the importance of trust, and what it will take to end veterans’ homelessness.
How was Milwaukee Homeless Veterans Initiative formed?
We were founded in 2008 by two Vietnam veterans. They were finding veterans living on the streets, in parks, in abandoned buildings and their cars and had started bringing them coffee and food, clothing, toiletries, and giving them resources, sometimes helping them access the VA because they had not been able to navigate their way to the VA or did not understand the issues and requirements that were preventing them from getting to the right people and resources. It started slowly, but they quickly identified that the number of homeless veterans in Milwaukee was a lot larger than anybody anticipated. So all of our programs really grew out of outreach and identifying those gaps that were preventing veterans from getting the things that they needed because of red tape and bureaucracy.
How do you engage veterans?
We know where veterans congregate. When we go to places like Repairers of the Breach, or Guest House or Cathedral Center, we know that there are veterans there. As veterans ourselves, we have this bond and this type of camaraderie. Building that trust right from the ground up is essential—and having that connection to reassure someone that we can assist them. It’s the follow through that really makes the difference. We’ve got their backs. We’re here to guide. We’re not going to convince someone to trust us and just refer them somewhere else. Because nothing is an immediate fix, if you put a Band-Aid on an issue or a problem, the problem is still there. The root of it is still there. And so we’re looking more to the holistic approach. They know to come to us and we will help them get to that next step.
What did you think of President Obama’s initiative to end homelessness? What do you think it will take to end homelessness among veterans?
I’m very pleased that the Obama administration has made eliminating veteran homelessness a focus. I know some cities have declared that they’ve ended veteran homelessness, but I don’t think it’s that simple. I think in order to truly end veteran homelessness we need to be able to move in swiftly and identify all of the things that contribute to homelessness and get those things under control before it leads to homelessness … At any point, any one of use can experience homelessness for a variety of reasons and without immediate intervention, it will continue. Whether it’s one night or a consecutive year of being homeless, we don’t want anybody to experience that. The only way to end it is to prevent it.