Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Battle Creek series.
Mary Bourgeois thought that her military service would help her to establish a life as a civilian. But, after voluntarily leaving the U.S. Army in 1991, she found herself, suicidal, homeless, and in need of resources.
After leaving the military, she and her then-husband moved to Louisiana. Not long after this move, she found herself homeless as a result of Hurricane Rita and alone after her husband filed for divorce. Faced with few options, she traveled to Michigan to live with her mother in Edwardsburg. There she did handy work for her mother in exchange for room and board.
In 2007, she tried to commit suicide. She ended up in the emergency room of a local hospital where the doctor treating her said “the best course of treatment was to send me to the VA Medical Center in Battle Creek. I was hospitalized in an in-patient psychiatric ward and I had no money, I had no ID, and the social worker at the in-patient unit had no idea what to do with me. It was December in Michigan and they were going to kick me out into the streets of Battle Creek.”
Bourgeois says she was “horrified” not only by the prospect of being discharged without a place to go but also because that social worker’s husband was a Marine. Bourgeois would ultimately find herself at a homeless shelter in Lansing operated by Volunteers of America, a collaboration with the Veterans Administration.
“While lying in a bunk in that homeless shelter, I thought this time I’m going to kill myself and would be very successful,” says Bourgeois who was diagnosed with PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) from military sexual trauma disorder which she says from her perspective isn’t a “really good term.”
Mary Bourgeois, a U.S. Army veteran, stands in front of the entrance to the chapel at St. Thomas Episcopol Church.
Thankfully, she never followed through with that second suicide attempt and eventually made her way back to Battle Creek where she has been living in a Women’s Transitional Residence, a collaboration between the VA and the Battle Creek Housing Authority.
Unable to work because of her diagnosis, she volunteers with her church and different community organizations and is financially stable because of compensation she received for her PTSD diagnosis.
Bourgeois says the situation she found herself in after a 13-year career with the United States Army was not unique at that time and that she was able to get some help.
“I know for a fact I would be dead without the services I received at the V.A. I haven’t been homeless in a long time and I haven’t had in-patient psychiatric care in a long time,” she says. “But there is a lot more need than there are available assets.”
A recently released report from the Michigan Association of United Ways
(MAUW) and its research partner, United For ALICE
(Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed) supports Bourgeois’ assertions on the needs versus the resources with a focus on the financial struggles facing veterans in Michigan and programs and services that have made a difference.
Mary Bourgeois, a U.S. Army veteran, lights a candle in the chapel at St. Thomas Episcopol Church.
“We know that our veterans have earned many benefits and have access to resources for higher education, and access to special loans. These benefits are intended to thank them and reward them,” says Alyssa Stewart, Chief Impact Officer with United Way of Southcentral Michigan. “Decades and decades of policy have established trusted benefits for veterans. For those veterans with disabilities, many of our veterans have received some level of support from the government. We have built a system of support for our veterans with public policy. However, there’s always more we could do to support and meet the needs of our veterans.”
The ALICE report says that more than one of every four veterans in Michigan struggles to afford the basics.
Based on data collected in 2019 the report titled “Veterans Struggling: ALICE Analysis Outlines Financial Hardship
” says that “6% of the state’s 511,490 veterans were deemed in poverty, and 20% — more than three times as many — were considered Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed. Combined, 26% of Michigan’s veterans were below the ALICE Threshold of Financial Survival, with income that doesn’t meet the basic costs of housing, child care, health care, transportation, and a smartphone plan.”
ALICE households earn more than the Federal Poverty Level but less than what it costs to live and work in the modern economy, according to a press release from the UWSCMI, which serves Barry, Calhoun, Clinton, Eaton, Ingham, and Jackson counties.
A research team at Rutgers University, working with the Michigan Association of United Ways to compile information in these ALICE reports, combined Calhoun and Barry counties because they needed to have a geographical area of 100,000 people to work with. They found that out of a combined total of 12,500 veterans in the two counties, 2,666 were ALICE and 1,470 were at or below the Federal Poverty Level. ALICE households are the growing number of families and individuals who are unable to afford the basics of housing, child care, food, transportation, health care, and technology.
In UWSCMI’s six-county region there are 49,533 veterans, 13,153 of them live below the ALICE Threshold. That includes 9,074 who are ALICE and 4,079 living in poverty.
The report says, “Overall, veterans facing financial hardship were concentrated in occupations with low median hourly wages. For example, in Michigan in 2019, 46% of veterans working as a cook, earning a median wage of $12.05 per hour, were below the ALICE Threshold. Similarly, 35% of veterans working as a food preparation worker (median wage $11.48) were below the Threshold. Yet, even at a higher median hourly wage ($16.23), 51% of veterans working as a bus driver/school were living below the Threshold.”
Stewart says the skills veterans bring with them from their time in military service are easily transferable into the workforce, but it isn’t always clear to them how those skills may be applicable to the jobs they’re seeking. She says there needs to be ongoing workforce support for veterans, to assure they get into good-paying jobs and are able to contribute at the high levels they are capable of while at the same time addressing mental health issues that many of them are dealing with as they re-enter civilian life.
“We know that in the space of veterans who are experiencing homelessness we tend to see a co-occurrence of other issues such as mental health or physical impairment,” Stewart says. “I definitely do think there’s a connection. I don’t want to over-generalize, but we do know that it’s possible because of the job they’re asked to do for our country.”
She says, “There needs to be a continued holistic support to those who were in military service. Our veterans experience significantly higher rates of depression, anxiety, and even suicide. We know that mental health plays into their ability to find and keep jobs and manage finances. I think the data would tell us that we probably need more support and resources in this area. We know that for some veterans there’s a reluctance to seek help because of the stigma associated with mental health issues.”
“I would say that about 80 percent of veterans have PTSD and most of them don’t want to admit it even if they have a psychiatric diagnosis because the general populace has a fear of vets going off the deep end which would negatively impact employment possibilities,” Bourgeois says.
Mental health issues play a significant role in veteran homelessness and unemployment, says Aaron Edlefson, Director of Calhoun County’s Veterans Affairs.
“There are programs and services intended to assist veterans who are dealing with these issues. On the health side of the issue, partners such as the Battle Creek VA Medical Center and Summit Pointe have programs to assist veterans,” he says. “Fiscally, our office, along with other Service Officers, can assist eligible veterans with Compensation & Pension benefits from the VA.”
He says, “From the Service Officer perspective, the program that makes the most positive difference in a veteran’s life is receiving compensation for a service-connected disability. Compensation is a tax-free, monthly payment based on a disability incurred or aggravated because of a veteran’s service. In 2021, in Calhoun County alone, the VA spent over $56 million in Compensation costs.”
The Battle Creek VA conducts a screening system to help connect Veterans seeking care with needed help, says Brian Pegouske, Chief, Communication & Community Engagement for the Battle Creek VA Medical Center.
“We provide a wide variety of services focusing on the whole health of Veterans,” he says in a written statement. “We are the hub for Veteran mental health services in the state of Michigan. We encourage all Veterans to find out about the benefits they have earned.”
Shining a light on racial inequities
For veterans who identify as BIPOC (Black Indigenous People of Color), accessing these benefits and other resources and services continues to be a challenge, says Sam Gray, retired United States Navy and Chairperson of the Calhoun County Veterans Affairs board.
During his active military service, he served on a Command Assessment Team which he says was intentional about talking about prejudice and stereotypes within the military.
“So, they were being intentional about ending discriminatory practices but was it really sinking in and changing anything? When you as a person of color would go up for promotions, you've got to wait and do more things to prove yourself than your white counterparts,” Gray says. “That consistently happens in the military. It’s on their radar and people talk a lot about Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion but it has to be about more than checking a box.”
The ALICE report says that “racial and ethnic inequities persist with 41% of American Indian/Alaska Native veterans, 36% of Black veterans and 14% of Hispanic veterans living below the ALICE Threshold compared to 25% of white veterans and 24% of Asian veterans.”
Of those veterans with disabilities, the report says 32% struggled more to afford the basics than compared to 23% of veterans without disabilities. This number is higher for Black veterans with disabilities with 45% living below the ALICE Threshold respectively in comparison with 31% of white veterans with disabilities.
Stewart says these rates in Calhoun and Barry counties mirror the state percentages. She says Black veterans are experiencing greater rates of poverty within the ALICE system.
“Whether someone has served or not (systemic inequities) affect them,” she says. “They may still have less access to housing and credit, upward mobility in jobs and may suffer from those dynamics. We know that military service provides great benefits but it doesn’t provide full protection from inequity and race disparities.”
Edlefson, of Veterans Affairs, says his organization along with their community partners “strive to serve each one of our veterans and their families with the same level of respect and compassion.”
Elevating the conversation
Although Bourgeois and Gray say there was nothing in the ALICE Report that they didn’t already know, they were surprised that a report like this was done focusing strictly on veterans.
"ALICE in Focus: Veterans" marks the third installment in the ALICE in Focus Research Series
. It draws on the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey (ACS) Public Use Microdata Samples (PUMS). Each installment in the series highlights a specific segment within the ALICE demographic. The previous installments focused on children
and people with disabilities
“I know for a fact that there are veterans here who are on the brink of homelessness and in need of simple auto repairs but don’t have the money,” Bourgeois says. “Having been in the Army for 13 years, I’m skeptical of asking governmental agencies to provide human services. It needs to be a community collaboration that involves volunteers willing to drive a vet to a job interview, help them move furniture into a new apartment, or talk to them at 2 o’clock in the morning when they need someone to talk to.”
Gray says veterans in the community are not invisible, but they can be marginalized.
“I see a lot of veterans with homeless signs saying that they need help. I carry around business cards for the American Legion or information about the VA,” Gray says. “We could throw money at it or do a drive-by but that won’t make a difference. We do our damndest to help veterans in this community. We go out of our way to help our brothers and sisters in arms.”
The community, Gray says, is being supportive.
“There are so many things going on here. We got a millage passed this year where homeowners pay one-tenth of a mill that helps support the Veterans Affairs office so that vets can go in and get help with their benefits and disability claims, ID cards and help with transportation,” he says. “Programs at the American Legion help with Housing First
that homeless vets can access. Having a VA Medical Center here is an advantage for our vets.”
There are some lessons to be learned from the data, says United For ALICE National Director Stephanie Hoopes, Ph.D. The state’s veterans are slightly better off than nonveterans with 26% struggling to make ends meet compared to 30% of adults who never served.
“Veterans have higher rates of full-time employment, are more likely to be homeowners, and have more comprehensive health insurance coverage and disability benefits,” Hoopes says in a press release. “This suggests that the supports afforded veterans are making a difference and could provide invaluable insights for developing strategies that help nonveterans facing financial hardship.”
Stewart says she’s “pleasantly surprised” by some of the findings in the report, but says the work needs to continue.
“As a whole, they are faring better than some of their counterparts. It gives me hope where we have put into place a comprehensive policy that has been successful,” Stewart says. “After decades and decades of support for veterans, what we have done seems to be paying some dividends.”
But, there is a balance that has yet to happen between those veterans who are experiencing success and stability and veterans in the community who need additional support, she says.
“We know we have more work to do because there are veterans who are struggling and not feeling supported,” Stewart says. “They need to be paid attention to and respected and services need to be provided to meet their needs. These ALICE Reports create an opportunity for populations to be seen that are often not seen.”