Nebraska

Backpack Project brings warmth, hope to veterans

OMAHA, Neb. (WOWT) — Ricky Washington is a success story, but he only knows it one day at a time.

After serving as an Army medic, the Northwest Omaha High School graduate came home to raise a family but lost it to addiction. The 57-year-old has spent decades trying to find his way back.

“[The loss of my wife and children]really started the decline, the spiral,” he said. “I never wanted to do anything other than (be with them) because they and the kids were gone and that was my life. But I now realize that this can (must) be possible with or without them.

“The thing” Ricky is referring to is that he’s off the road, sober, and employed by the VA Nebraska-Western Iowa Health Care System.

He celebrated Veterans Day at Siena Francis House with others struggling after service and said camaraderie remains important to all of them.

“They walked this path, they understand it,” he said. “When they see me getting a little bit opinionated, they say bring it back, you know, they’re checking on me, making sure I’m okay.”

He was one of dozens of veterans who received bags of life-saving items from the Bellevue University Military Veterans Services Backpack Project. The backpack was actually replaced with a military-style holdall due to the many donations they receive, including socks, jackets, toiletries, reusable water bottles and hand warmers. Any help, no matter how small, can make a difference for men and women who are dealing with the three H’s this winter: homelessness, pain and hunger.

“They know that coming together as a community and bringing them love and warmth and making sure they’re honored on a day where they’re recognized is really the heartbeat of it all,” says the Bellevue University Veterans Service manager Center said Heather Carroll. Carroll is also a veteran and said they always reach out to the homeless veterans who can’t make it off the streets for help.

Data from federal and local research shows that the number of homeless veterans is declining across the country. But that doesn’t take into account those who weren’t counted because they’re off the grid or sick.

“I know people who just don’t know how to ask for help, they don’t know how to receive help,” he said. “It’s there, the Siena Francis House and other missions in the city, they can help you well, you just have to know how to receive it.”

Sister Stephanie Matcha of the Notre Dame Sisters has worked with Siena Francis House for 25 years and said she has seen how government housing programs have worked to provide housing for displaced veterans.

“As the Veterans (Affairs) and the Biden and Trump administrations put more money into housing homeless vets, the number of homeless veterans began to decline,” she said. “I think it’s unfortunate to ever put those two words together in one sentence because they deserve better.”

Ricky may actually be homeless while he lives and recovers at Siena Francis House, but he knows firsthand that he’s in a much better situation than many. And he said he speaks regularly to his three daughters and their families, something he wasn’t sure he would be able to do many years ago.

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