The backroom of the Down the Road Thrift store in Cocoa, Florida, is where owners Jerry Vaughan and Bobbie Warner safeguard their most valuable inventory.
Items inside the “footlocker” are not viewable to the general public, nor are they for sale.
They’re given away.
“The footlocker stores nonperishable food, camping equipment, and battle dress uniforms for our country’s traveling and homeless Veterans,” said Vaughan. “We also stock a number of military dress uniforms, which are available at no cost to a Veteran’s family to ensure that our nation’s heroes are buried properly.”
The initiative is personal for Vaughan, a fourth-generation Veteran. He opened the thrift store with Warner in 2017 to better serve homeless Veterans whom he felt weren’t getting the help they needed. For the business’ first year, the couple offered Veterans free furniture and home necessities, but they began to change their approach after a chance encounter with a My HealtheVet coordinator.
A History of Helping Homeless Veterans
“It’s not a matter of money. It’s a matter of honor and dignity for the men and women who have sacrificed so much for our country,” Vaughan said. “It falls on everyone to hold up those who answered the call to service, and this is my way of giving back.”
According to the 2018 Annual Homeless Assessment Report from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), in January 2018, almost 38,000 Veterans nationwide were experiencing homelessness. In Brevard County, Florida–Down the Road Thrift’s community–there were 169 Veterans who were homeless. Nearby counties surrounding Orlando (Orange, Seminole, and Osceola) tallied together had more than 180 Veterans experiencing homelessness.
At the same time, the HUD report shows that the number of homeless Veterans has decreased by almost 50% since 2010. According to the report, a key player in this reduction is the HUD-VA Supportive Housing (HUD-VASH) program, which helps find homeless Veterans permanent housing. As of the end of fiscal 2018, the HUD-VASH program’s rental assistance vouchers had enabled 78,234 U.S. Veterans experiencing chronic homelessness to find safe, stable housing.
Vaughan said homeless Veterans’ participation in the HUD-VASH program is only the beginning of the help available to them in central Florida. Veterans can also receive essentials and furniture donations from nonprofits such as Vaughan’s store.
“It’s not just what’s in the footlocker that’s free for these Veterans; it’s our entire store,” said Vaughan. “Once a Veteran has gotten a place to live through the HUD-VASH program, we allow them to get anything in the store for free. They can shop for whatever they want, as long as it’s appropriate for the size of the apartment. Couches, dressers, silverware, decorations, end tables, televisions. You name it, it’s theirs–and we deliver.
“We have created a place that allows Veterans to turn their apartment into a place they are proud of. We want the Veterans we work with to know that there are people in the world who care about them.”
The entire thrift store is funded and furnished by community donations. A local hotel recently donated an unopened box of 146 coffee pots. A local pet store provides free dog food for service animals. And retired military leadership in a nearby neighborhood frequently provides donations.
“This group of retired brass has been instrumental in helping some of the lower-ranking enlisted soldiers,” Vaughan said. “There is definitely something funny about a former E-4 petty officer digging his heels into an admiral’s couch, but we have created a culture here that loves giving back.”
Since March 2018, Down the Road Thrift has furnished over 122 apartments for Veterans eligible for HUD-VASH living in Brevard County, but Vaughan said the store’s mission isn’t done.
Vaughan’s goal is for his store to serve as a one-stop shop for Veterans to receive community resources, including signing up for a My HealtheVet account. The idea for Vaughan’s goal developed earlier this year from a walk-in customer looking to buy a few items.
A New Approach Inspired by My HealtheVet
That customer was Melinda LaTona, an Air Force Veteran who works as a VA My HealtheVet Documentation Manager in Rockledge, Florida.
“Some family and I were out shopping, and I was drawn to the thrift store because it had a sign that said it was a ‘Veteran-for-Veteran business,’” said LaTona. “Working at VA and being a Veteran myself, I always love to give back to these organizations when I can.
“When I started talking with Jerry about his business, we got on the topic of using My HealtheVet. He said he had been meaning to get a My HealtheVet account for quite some time but wasn’t really sure how to get started.”
The two walked back to the computer, and LaTona assisted him in creating his new account and gave Vaughan a My HealtheVet tutorial.
“I showed Jerry the site as well as some of the features, like Secure Messaging and prescription refill, and made sure he felt comfortable using the platform,” LaTona said. “You should have seen the look in his eyes. He was so excited and grateful. It was a great feeling for both of us.”
Vaughan later explained why he was so happy to learn how to use My HealtheVet: “Up until recently, I hadn’t sought help at any Veterans clinics because I have relatively good health. My mindset was that the health care dollars would be better spent on my fellow soldiers who truly need it. But now, I want to make sure every Veteran has access to these tools. Anyone willing to make the ultimate sacrifice for our country should not have to worry about their access to health care or their housing.”
Since his meeting with LaTona, Vaughan has become a My HealtheVet advocate and often talks about the platform with Veterans who visit the store. Vaughan would like to eventually offer additional support services in the store, including monthly information sessions on My HealtheVet, community transportation options, and Veteran employment opportunities.
For LaTona, the real story is Vaughan’s and Warner’s continued service to those in need.
“I took 10 to 15 minutes to help Jerry get logged in to the My HealtheVet website,” said LaTona. “Jerry and Bobbie are the ones working like crazy to make sure other Veterans in central Florida are being taken care of on a daily basis.”
Check out va.gov/homeless to browse VA’s available homelessness programs.
If you are homeless or at imminent risk of becoming homeless, call 877-4AID-VET (877-424-3838) or chat online here. Trained, supportive professionals are available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, to connect you with the services you have earned.
Disclaimer: Reference herein to any specific commercial products, process, or service by trade name, trademark, manufacturer, or otherwise does not necessarily constitute or imply its endorsement, recommendation, or favoring by the U.S. government. The views and opinions of authors expressed herein do not necessarily state or reflect those of the U.S. government and shall not be used for advertising or product endorsement purposes.
Treva Lutes is a communications specialist with the Veterans Health Administration.