A little over a year ago, Bill Hill, a claims assistant at VA’s Huntington Regional Office in West Virginia, received a briefing regarding the problem of Veteran homelessness from that office’s homeless coordinator. During the briefing, one of Mr. Hill’s co-workers stood up to discuss homelessness and acknowledged that he had once been homeless. “I worked with this guy everyday,” he thought. Mr. Hill started wondering what he could do. That discussion became the inspiration for a 425 mile bike ride that Mr. Hill began on Saturday with seven other riders.
Mr. Hill has organized the Homeless Veterans Ride to raise funds for Huntington’s Homeless Resource Center. The center does not house homeless Veterans, but provides them with skills and resources to obtain employment and housing. The funds raised by the trek will go towards purchasing “home starter kits” for Veterans that include dishes, bathroom necessities, cleaning supplies, air mattresses and passes for public transportation so that the Veterans can travel to medical appointments and job interviews.
The Ride will take six days, covering between 75 and 85 miles each day. Riders aging from their late 30s to early 70s departed Saturday at 7:45 a.m. from the starting line of the West Virginia 5k in Huntington where Huntington RO Homeless Program Coordinator LeeAnn Bills addressed a crowd of approximately 1,000 people. At a stop on their first day, riders attended a ceremony hosted by the office West Virginia Governor Earl Ray Tomblin.
The Ride will end on Thursday at the Vietnam Memorial on the National Mall. West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin and Janice Jacobs, Department of Veterans Affairs Deputy Undersecretary for Disability Assistance, plan to meet the cyclists at the finish line of their 85-mile final day ride. Of the riders, Ms. Jacobs stated “I’m inspired by the way our nationwide staff goes above and beyond for Veterans every single day. What Mr. Hill and his team are doing for homeless Veterans is truly remarkable.”
“The men and women who have served so bravely in the defense of our country deserve the very best in treatment and care, and even one veteran sleeping on the street is one too many,” Senator Manchin said. “My total commitment has been to helping our veterans in any way we can, whether that is finding veterans a place to live or helping them get a job. I am very proud of the West Virginians who have participated in the Homeless Veterans Ride and their tremendous commitment to raising awareness and funds for the homeless veterans who have made the ultimate sacrifice for this nation. The teamwork shown by the riders is a reminder that we must all work together to achieve Secretary Shinseki’s goal of eliminating veteran homelessness in West Virginia and across the country.”
The riders will also meet with West Virginia Congressman Nick Rahall the following day. “No veteran should be without a roof over their head. In this nation of plenty, where we sleep at night comforted by the sense of safety our Armed Forces provide, homelessness among veterans is a travesty,” said Congressman Rahall, who is a senior member of the House Military Veterans Caucus. “Readjusting to civilian life is often difficult for our veterans and their families, but having a place to call home provides a solid foundation to readjust and rebuild. I am proud of my fellow West Virginians who are making this six-day, 425-mile bike ride to call attention to the needs of our nation’s veterans and the work of the Homeless Veterans Resource Center in Huntington. This effort is a shining example that we must all remember the plight of homeless veterans in West Virginia and throughout our nation.”
Along the way, the team will be wearing cycling jerseys representing service branches in which either they or their family served. As for Mr. Hill, he will be rotating between an Air Force jersey to honor his mother (a 27 year USAF Veteran), an Army jersey for his father-in-law, and a Navy jersey for his brother.
Last year, Mr. Hill and a friend did a similar ride. That event, spanning from Huntington to Wheeling, West Virginia, raised nearly $2,000 for the Veterans Resource Center. The increase in distance for this year’s event is dwarfed only by the support that has been received from the Huntington Community. In November, Mr. Hill and his team set out to raise $6,000 on this years ride, but raised that in under a month. As of Friday afternoon, the Ride had raised over $23,000.
“We’ve been blessed by the way people have received us and this cause,” said Mr. Hill. “It allows us to do more and more things for the homeless Vet population.”
Huntington businesses and civic organizations have been on board as well. In March, Elks Lodge 313 hosted a spaghetti dinner to benefit the ride. Paula Vega Cakes in downtown Huntington will be selling patriotic cupcakes while Mr. Hill’s team cycles to the Nation’s Capital and donating a portion of each sale to the Ride.
Employees at the Huntington RO have also been eager to show their support. The VA Employees Association held two catered lunches this spring and raised over $500 for fuel for the support vehicle which is carrying food, changes of clothes and other supplies as for the cyclists. A strong employee contingent also saw the riders off on their ride on Saturday.
For his part, Mr. Hill hopes the Homeless Veterans Ride can continue as an annual event. “We’re excited and proud we can do something like this,” he said.
Check out our Flickr set for pictures of Bill Hill’s arrival in Washington, D.C.
Richard Allen Smith is a Web Communications Specialist for the Veterans Benefits Administration, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Richard served on active duty in the United States Army from 2003-2008 and deployed to Afghanistan with 1st Battalion, 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 82nd Airborne Division in 2007.