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Homeless Veteran finds stability after transition from military service

To those who have never served, the transition from military to civilian life may look easy, but Air Force Veteran Nicalayae Buford would be the first to tell you it’s not.

Adjusting to a life without structure, the camaraderie of a team and a daily mission left Buford feeling adrift and would eventually lead to her becoming homeless.

With the support of the Overton Brooks VA Medical Center in Shreveport, Louisiana, and particularly her Housing and Urban Development-VA Supportive Housing (HUD-VASH) case manager Mia Whiteside, Buford now lives in a stable home where she’s raising her three children. She also has a new job and is back in school with ambitions to become a social worker.

“In the military, we’re taught to be strong and that there’s no room for weakness, but in this area, your weakness is your strength,” said Buford, explaining why she counsels other women Veterans to seek assistance if they need it. “You have to be willing to be vulnerable in order to build yourself back up.”

Facing uncertainty

Buford joined the Air Force in 2007 because she wanted to serve something bigger than herself. She spent six years maintaining aircraft life support and survival equipment before leaving active duty in 2013 for the Reserve, where she served an additional four years.

Buford became homeless for the first time in 2015 when she separated from her spouse. Missing the rhythms and routines of active duty and describing her home environment at the time as “unhelpful and unhealthy,” her mental health quickly deteriorated. She made the difficult decision to ask family members to care for her two young children temporarily as she tried to gain stability herself.

Though she’d been trained to be courageous in uncertain situations, that didn’t seem to translate to the civilian world. Buford wasn’t sure who or what to trust. She was acutely aware of the loss of support of her comrades in arms and this was only compounded by the uncertainty of homelessness.

She became connected with VA homeless programs through a Salvation Army shelter but would frequently lose trust in a system that seemed set up more for single men than women with children. She would disconnect at those times, remaining homeless.

VA staff persisted, following her through moves across state lines and unsuccessful attempts to get her into permanent housing. On a check-in call for a VA medical appointment, she revealed she was homeless again. But this time she was ready for help. Staff enrolled her in the HUD-VASH program and she moved into an apartment with her children.

Challenges ahead

Just as it looked like Buford’s housing placement was going to stick, two unexpected hurdles were thrown in her path. First, she found out she was pregnant again.

Unsure whether she had the resources to care for a third child, she considered giving the baby up for adoption. Whiteside was there as she struggled with the decision, not to push one way or another but to just talk through her options in a supportive way.

Buford began to see she had the strength to handle her uncertain circumstances. She had Whiteside’s support and, even if she sometimes felt alone, she had the tools to move forward. She made the decision to raise her new son.

She was put to the test once more when her apartment caught fire. It began in the kitchen when the power went out and the stove was left on accidentally. Buford lost all her possessions in the fire.

Though she had graduated from the case management services provided by HUD-VASH, she knew she could lean on Whiteside to help her overcome the initial panic of being homeless again. Whiteside quickly linked Buford and her family to the Red Cross for immediate transitional housing. Whiteside then worked with her to find a new HUD-VASH apartment where the family lives today.

“I had to start all over, but thankfully, I had the tools by then to persevere,” she said.

Learn about VA programs 

If you are a Veteran who is homeless or at risk for homelessness, call the National Call Center for Homeless Veterans at 877-4AID-VET (877-424-3838).

Visit the VA Homeless Programs website to learn about housing initiatives and other programs for Veterans exiting homelessness. 

Check out the Ending Veteran Homelessness podcast to learn more about what VA is doing about Veteran homelessness. 

Learn how to get involved with housing homeless Veterans.

Subscribe to the Homeless Programs Office newsletter to receive monthly updates about programs and supportive services for Veterans experiencing or at risk of homelessness. 

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