Former eight-year Army veteran Wilma Fiddmont’s dreams of settling into a comfortable life in Georgia took a sharp detour that left her homeless and sleeping in her car.
Her life was in shambles as the little money she had saved up quickly disappeared while she was living in hotel rooms, but she would quickly rebound in 2021 after searching phone book listings led to her discovering a new Warner Robins shelter that is aiming to end chronic homelessness for women who served in the military.
Fiddmont’s dedication to the program led by Genesis Joy House is what led to her moving into her own Warner Robins apartment and becoming a trained sous-chef who is using her culinary skills to manage the Middle Georgia shelter’s kitchen.
The 73-year-old retired baker said that the Genesis Joy House and its founder Margaret Flowers provided her with a safe and comfortable place to stay while she transitioned back to normalcy.
“It was a blessing to me while I look to find a place of my own,” Fiddmont said. “(Flowers) made sure that I had a place to stay. She made sure that anything I needed, that I had it in the house. She checked on me every day and she got me in touch with a caseworker.”
Memorial Day is a time to remember fallen soldiers, but it is also an opportunity to reflect on the pressing challenges like homelessness facing many military veterans in Georgia and across the nation.
Thousands of former service members like Fiddmont are relying on government agencies and nonprofits to find a place to live and access resources including meals, counseling, job placement assistance and health care.
Nationwide, veterans experiencing homelessness decreased 11% between 2020 and 2022, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. During a 10-year period ending in 2019, the number of homeless veterans was cut in half, a decrease of 36,000 people, a HUD report found.
While Georgia saw an 11% increase in veterans experiencing homelessness from 2018-19, the state had the nation’s second largest decline from 2009-19 at 71%, or 1,959 veterans, the report found.
The Georgia Department of Community Affairs administers the Homeless Veterans Program, which provides emergency shelter, transitional housing and long-term housing options.
But the COVID-19 pandemic hit vulnerable populations hard, as thousands of homeless veterans lost their jobs or began earning less money, making it difficult for them to maintain their living arrangements.
Demand remains significant on nonprofit organizations providing critical support services such as the Northeast Georgia Veterans Homeless Shelter, a Barrow County Christian ministry that requires veterans to maintain a full-time job while living there. Nonprofit Veteran Empowerment Organization in Atlanta also provides housing support and career skills development.
In Warner Robins, the Genesis Joy House can house up to six women at any given time for its 90-to-120-day program that offers a wide range of services from counseling to home loan assistance and job training.
In order to complete the program, the veterans must have a full-time job and permanent housing.
“It’s a very rigorous program. We want to help as many women as we can,” Flowers said.
“They have enough stress on their plate so give us the stress,” she said. “We want to be able to advocate on your behalf. We enroll you in VA wraparound services so you can get your counseling, make sure you’re getting all of the medicine and other things that you need. We just help them out with every aspect of their lives.”
The Genesis organization is yet another transitional housing organization that relies heavily on private donations to supplement any government funding.
For nonprofit HOPE Atlanta, the pandemic led to a 50% increase in veteran enrollment for wraparound services, particularly among women, younger veterans and veterans with children. The organization receives federal funding through the Supportive Services for Veteran Families program.
During 2019, the nonprofit worked with 575 veterans across 25 Georgia counties and had a 77% job placement rate for veterans.
This year, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs set a goal to place at least 38,000 vets into permanent housing while ensuring that 95% of the vets housed last year don’t lose their homes. The benchmark is the same as in 2022 when over 40,400 veterans were housed.
“We look forward to seeing continued progress on aggressive housing goals that are connected to the federal benchmarks and criteria on ending veteran homelessness,” National Coalition for Homeless Veterans CEO Kathryn Monet said. “We also look forward to the application of lessons learned in all communities.”
In Georgia, efforts are underway to combat PTSD and other mental health conditions that many homeless veterans suffer from. This year, the legislature passed House Bill 414 to establish a mental health program grant for veterans and their families.
Georgia Department of Veterans Services will administer the program, which will award matching grants to nonprofit community behavioral health programs.
“HB 414 establishes a grant fund to allow the state of Georgia to couple with private investment in support of our veteran and military families,” said Rep. Shaw Blackmon, a Bonaire Republican who sponsored the bill. “This is consistent with our state’s commitment to the well-being of our service members and their families – helping take care of those who take care of us.”
Two nonprofit organizations are on track to receive grant funds in June from the Georgia Department of Veterans Services that will support mental and behavioral health services for active-duty service members, veterans and their families.
GDVS Commissioner Patricia Ross said that another important resource for veterans is a new electronic referral system called Unite Georgia, which currently links 400 community-based partners and health care providers with veterans.
In addition to working closely with the VA homeless coordinators, the state veterans department is also using Unite Georgia to get veterans in touch with local housing providers.
“The data shows veterans are getting connected to partner organizations within a day versus weeks it previously took to find and connect with an organization who could help,” Ross said.
Flowers said that women veterans are four times more likely to become homeless than veterans who are men and that women are significantly more likely to suffer from depression due to military sexual trauma or because of a traumatic brain injury.
Fiddmont’s message to other veterans who find themselves in difficult situations is that they should utilize the same level of discipline and dedication they gained from serving in the military.
“We had some females that come (to Genesis) and they just couldn’t handle the rules and regulations,” she said. “But you can’t run a place without rules and regulations. You have to have the mindset to want to do better, be better, move on and not be down on yourself.”