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From Prison To Honor Center, Vets Transition

Veterans who end up in jail or prison face a lot of problems when they get out – the lack of health care – finding employment - possible homelessness. To address those needs, the Department of Veterans Affairs has created several programs over the past decade.

The Health Care for Reentry Veterans program reaches out to veterans before they walk out of prison.

“For one thing, we get people enrolled in their home VA,” said Taylor Savage, the lead HCRV outreach specialist, one of four, who visit vets incarcerated at state and federal prisons throughout Florida and southern Georgia.

“One of my biggest things is try to get them (veterans) to primary care because if we get them to primary care their odds of not going back to prison jumps,” Savage said, adding that health problems, both mental and physical, are risk factors that can lead to time in jail or prison.

The HCRV specialists serve a wide age range of veterans in prison. Savage said she’s heard every story in the book including veterans in their 60s and 70s selling their prescription drugs or buying pain killers on the street so they can do physical labor.

Areon Miller, 51, spent four years in the Army in the 1980s and also spent time in Florida prison. He was sentenced in 2011 for selling his prescription drugs, hydrocodone, and trafficking in illegal drugs.

“I was in a veterans’ program in Sumter CI (Correctional Institute). That’s where I met Ms. Savage,” Miller said.

Savage visited Miller in prison before he was released two months ago and got him enrolled in VA health care and signed up for housing at the Veterans Honor Center in Gainesville.

While Miller awaits test results and possible future surgeries, he participates in daily programs like therapeutic gardening.

“I love the fish. Feeding the fish and taking care of that. Watering the plants,” Miller said.

Credit Bobbie O'Brien / WUSF Public Media
WUSF Public Media
Recreational therapist Alee Karpf in the Honor Center garden.

The recreational therapist, Alee Karpf, said he was an eager participant in the veteran-led gardening group. They plant, weed, water and even help with some of the garden design.

Vegetables and herbs grown in the garden are then used to teach cooking skills in the center’s Harvest Room which was purposefully designed like a typical apartment kitchen.

The whole idea behind the VA residential rehabilitation treatment center is to help homeless and at risk homeless transition into caring for themselves. The center serves veterans who require treatment for things like diabetes or substance abuse. Some - but not all - residents are from the VA prison reentry program.

“We’re taking care of the roof over their head and the meals aspect,” said Rene Burke, a social worker at the center. “If they have some significant medical care, if they significant mental health, substance issues that they really need to take care of, it’s hard to focus on those things if you don’t have a roof over your head and food on your plate.”

Residents get three meals a day and are expected to participate in a minimum of four hours of programing. There’s a wide range of options including music therapy, learning bike repair and therapy groups. The capacity is 45 veterans total, up to six of those beds are for female vets.

Credit Bobbie O'Brien / WUSF Public Media
WUSF Public Media
Entrance to the Veterans Honor Center, Gainesville, FL.

From the outside, it’s a concrete block building. Inside, there are shared facilities like a dining hall, laundry room, a large TV room with theater seating, an exercise room, and a music room that shares space with a billiards table.

“The veterans here have full access to pretty much any resource they need,” said Charlotte Matthews, Veterans’ Justice Outreach specialist who works for the VA visiting vets in county jails and criminal courts in Florida and southern Georgia.

“When we talk about identifying veterans in the criminal justice system, it’s important to realize that in itself is a challenge,” Matthews said. “The VA can’t reach those individuals unless we partner as a society and ask people ‘Have you served in the military?’”

Because the VA can’t help vets, she added, if they’re not identified by the justice system.

Bobbie O’Brien has been a Reporter/Producer at WUSF since 1991. She reports on general news topics in Florida and the Tampa Bay region.
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