Texoma area organizations gathered together in Sherman Thursday morning with the goal of getting homeless veterans off the street and connected with health, housing and social support services.

The Homeless Veterans Stand Down program was held at the Four Rivers Outreach center as well as in cities throughout the country on Thursday. The local event was largely organized by the Texoma Community Center’s Veterans Services department and sponsored by Veterans Affairs in Bonham. Participating groups, including Grayson College, Workforce Solutions Texoma and the American Red Cross, handed out toiletries, clothing and information regarding local support services.

“Some veterans really struggle,” veteran and Texoma Community Center Veterans Services Coordinator Penny Poolew said. “But we have a lot of support within the community when it comes to ending homelessness.”

Poolew explained that addressing and reducing veteran homelessness in Texoma and all across America is a challenge because substance abuse and mental health are often intertwined with homelessness and affect a person’s daily stability.

Jennifer Weatherford, who serves as an affordable housing advocate for the Texoma Council of Governments said when it comes to getting veterans off the street, the mantra is “housing first.” Weatherboard explained that if a homeless veteran has a safe and consistent place to stay, they’re more likely to succeed. But that comes at a cost that not all veterans can afford.

“The median area rent here is usually about $780 a month,” Weatherford said. “But the majority of our retired veterans are making the SSI (Social Security Income) and SSDI (Social Security Disability Income) minimum of $735 a month. That means 104 percent of their income goes toward rent alone. It’s a huge, huge problem.”

VA Senior Social Worker Michael Serpa said Texoma veterans are often disconnected because of how rural the region is and don’t know the full extent to which the VA can help. In addition to identification, health care, employment and transportation services, Serpa said the VA can offer veterans some financial relief when it comes to housing.

“When they come into our program, they get a Section 8 voucher that basically helps pay a portion of their rent,” Serpa said. “We also come to their home and meet with them at least once a month, if not more often. In those meetings, we help to make sure that the services they need are set up around them so that they can become self sufficient.”

And that’s precisely why Shane Johnson stopped by Four Rivers for the awareness event. Johnson, a veteran of the United States Marine Corps, is currently walking from Orlando, Florida, to Oceanside, California, as part of the Hike Across America program. Through the homelessness awareness campaign, Johnson is stopping at shelters along the way and handing out hygiene products and a little encouragement to the homeless.

Johnson said there are many homeless veterans with severe issues and they deserve every bit of service and support available to them. But he also said he believes that some of America’s homeless veterans become accustomed to the free services and have lost their motivation to become more independent.

“My goal is to get these veterans off their butts and inspire them again to make things happen for themselves,” Johnson said. “That’s exactly what they did before when they were in the military and they can do it again.”