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Vet Aid '17: Homeless Veterans Update

Wayne Yoshioka

The latest homeless point-in-time count indicates an increase among veterans on O?ahu. HPR’s Wayne Yoshioka talked to veterans and homeless assistance providers for this update. 

The 3rd annual Vet Aid-17 was conducted at the O’ahu Veterans Center Saturday.   U-S Vets provides homeless services at Barbers Point in Kalaeloa.   Outreach coordinator, Macy Seva’aetasi, says greater demand has resulted in stepped up capacity.

“We used to have a little over a hundred beds to serve veterans in the homeless capacity and now we have close to 130 beds on the island of O’ahu.  We’ve also expanded our rapid re-housing and homeless prevention programs so right now we’re currently serving 93 male veterans and 10 female veterans in our transitional housing.”

Seva’aetasi says the 9 percent increase in the January 2017 homeless veterans point-in-time count on O’ahu could be due to improved methodology and better contact.   Erica Lemkuhl is 40 years old and a retired Army First Sergeant. 

Credit Wayne Yoshioka
Retired Army 1st Sgt. Erica Lemkuhl (standing, right) discusses veteran's benefits with Joey Castro (seated, left) from US Vets.

“I retired Friday at 23 years total from the Army.  I joined when I was 17.”

She says veterans have support services available to them, so other than mental illness or substance abuse, there’s little excuse for any veteran to be homeless.  She also says there are many fake veterans out there.

“There are a lot of people that stand on the side of the road with signs that say, “Homeless veteran, can you donate a dollar, something like that.”  And I’ll stop to talk to them because I do give money sometimes to people on the side of the road.  And often times, when you start questioning them, its people who really never served.  They’re just lying.  So I think the perception that there is a gianormous amount of homeless veterans is a little bit out of proportion just because try to use that angle to get more money panhandling.”

The U-S Department of Veterans Affairs Pacific Islands Health Care System headquartered at Tripler Army Medical Center has a key role in veteran’s homeless services and treatment.  The System has been without a permanent director since February last year but has come under fire by some veterans who oppose the appointment of Jennifer Gutowski.  Gutowski was acting director at the Southern Arizona VA Health System when it was investigated for zeroing-out patient wait times and awarding physician bonuses.   Gutowski was not charged with any wrongdoing and disagrees with her critics.

“They reference an OIG or Office of Inspector General report that was done and that was during the

Credit Wayne Yoshioka
Jennifer Gutowski (right), newly assigned director of the VA Pacific Islands Health Care System, talks to Rick Hamada, KHVH radio host and Vet Aid '17 organizer.

tenure that I was there and I fully cooperated during that time.  I can tell you that I worked really hard with the staff and with veterans to address any of those issues that were brought to light.”

Gutowski was promoted to Pacific Islands director and has been on the job one week.  She vows to do everything she can to improve services for veterans.

“It’s very personal to me.  So not only is this a job but my father is s Vietnam veteran who receives care from the VA.  In fact, he’ll be joining me out here in the Fall to receive care here.  So it’s personal to me.”

According to the V-A, there are more than 87-thousand military veterans on O’ahu, with 449 reported homeless.   Wayne Yoshioka,  HPR News.

Wayne Yoshioka
Wayne Yoshioka is an award-winning journalist who has worked in television, print and radio in Hawaiʻi. He also has been on both sides of politics as a state departmental appointee and political/government reporter. He covered Hurricane Iwa (1982) as a TV reporter; was the State Department of Defense/Civil Defense spokesperson for Hurricane Iniki (1992); and, commanded a public affairs detachment in Afghanistan (2006). He has a master's degree in Communication from the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa and is a decorated combat veteran (Legion of Merit, Bronze Star and 22 other commendation/service medals). He resides in Honolulu.
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