Having a mattress to sleep on is something most of us take for granted. But for Veterans exiting homelessness, a mattress may be a luxury they can’t afford.
That’s where the Veterans Canteen Service (VCS) comes in. In 2014, VCS began the Beds for Vets program to donate mattresses to Veterans transitioning out of homelessness. Although VCS is a part of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), it does not receive any appropriated funds.
“VCS is committed to supporting programs that serve to enhance the quality of life for our Veterans, their families and those who provide for their care. There is no higher honor than to give back to those who served” said VCS Executive Director Ray Tober.
VCS has commercial activity retail stores in VA medical centers (VAMCs) across the country. The mission of the stores is to provide merchandise and services at reasonable prices to Veterans enrolled in the VA health care system, and to their family members, friends and caregivers. A significant percentage of the proceeds from the sale of goods and services is transferred back into VA programs that have a positive impact on the Veterans they serve.
Ray noted that last year, VCS dedicated more than $8 million to various VA initiatives, such as the Center for Women Veterans, Voluntary Service, Fisher House program, Veterans suicide prevention, national rehabilitation events, “Welcome Home” events, Stand Downs, Veterans Day events, and the homelessness program.
In 2012, VCS entered into a partnership with the VA Homeless Programs Office, committing a portion of its revenue to helping Veterans who are exiting homelessness. VCS and the Homeless Programs Office began providing free meals to Veterans arriving for their first appointment at a VAMC. Then they started offering a $20 coupon to every HUD-VASH recipient to purchase basic necessities from VCS.
Two years into their partnership, VCS and the Homeless Programs Office created the Beds for Vets program. VCS secured a partnership with Serta, a mattress company, which provides the mattresses at low cost. During the first year, VCS was able to donate 4,000 queen-sized mattresses to Veterans moving into permanent housing across 60 cities.
“As Veterans began transitioning into housing, we learned that the number one obstacle they faced was to secure beds and move-in kits,” said Ray. VCS saw a need — and met it.
Carey Filer is the chief merchandising officer for VCS. He and his team work closely with the VA Homeless Programs Office and local homeless coordinators to make sure that each VAMC meets the requirements of the Beds for Vets program. If there is the ability to store the donated mattresses and there is demand, VAMCs across the country can receive a shipment of donated mattresses from VCS every year.
This year, one of those VAMCs was in Clarksburg, West Virginia.
Rick Tucker, an Air Force Veteran, found himself without work and without a home for himself and his daughter after he injured his back. In his time of need, the VA was there. Rick found housing through the HUD-VASH program and received a mattress through Beds for Vets. But shortly afterward, Rick discovered that his new apartment and mattress were infested with bed bugs from the previous tenant, so they had to move again.
Rick was placed in a new apartment, but he was again without a bed. Despite his injured back, he was sleeping on the floor. He told his VA caseworker, and she got to work securing him a second mattress through the Beds for Vets program.
Now, Rick is able to work and is participating in VA’s Compensated Work Therapy, which provides temporary jobs and job services to help Veterans get back in the workforce.
“You can get help with just about anything,” said Rick. “Someone [at VA] can steer you in the direction of someone who can help you get whatever you need.”
In 2016, VCS expanded its services thanks to a partnership with the Veteran-owned Lodging Kit Company. Together, they provide Veterans transitioning out of homelessness with move-in kits that include essentials such as cleaning, kitchen and bathroom supplies.
Since VCS’ partnership with the VA Homeless Programs Office began, VCS has made in-kind donations worth more than $4.4 million — 10,000 queen mattresses, 4,000 move-in kits, 91,000 free meal cards, and 66,000 coupons.
This year, VCS is reaching out to VA’s Domiciliary Care Program to determine whether any of the Veterans receiving care through the program could benefit from a mattress donation from Beds for Vets. In the future, Ray looks to expand the program even further.
“If I can include toys and things for kids, things that would meet the needs of children, that would be my vision,” he said. “I’m focused on how to make life better for the whole family.”
If you are a Veteran, Veteran caregiver, or VAMC visitor, you are eligible to shop at VCS — and in doing so, you are giving back to those you care about.
If you have a business and want to get involved in helping Veterans who are experiencing or may be at risk for homelessness, visit www.va.gov/homeless/stakeholders.asp.
- Visit VA’s website to learn about employment initiatives and other programs for Veterans exiting homelessness.
- Refer Veterans who are homeless or at imminent risk of becoming homeless to their local VA medical center, where VA staff are ready to assist, or urge them to call 877-4AID-VET (877-424-3838).
About the author: Monica Diaz is Executive Director of the VHA Homeless Programs Office. For more than five years, Mrs. Diaz served as a Governor’s Appointee at the Department of California Veterans Affairs at the largest Veterans Home in the nation, Yountville Veterans Home. Mrs. Diaz has a master’s degree in Healthcare Management Administration from the University of Phoenix and an undergraduate degree in Forensic Psychology, with honors, from the University of Puerto Rico