Oklahoma veteran homelessness, suicide rates were on the rise before pandemic

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OKLAHOMA CITY (KFOR) – Troubling new data shows that the number of veterans experiencing homelessness or committing suicide was on the rise in Oklahoma before 2020.

According to the Department of Housing and Urban Development, homelessness rose 16.1% from 2019 to 2020.

Data from the Oklahoma Department of Veteran’s Affair’s 2018 report shows that suicides increased 36% between 2017 and 2018.

As a child of an Air Force family, Willard Payne saw the world.

“We were anywhere and everywhere from Germany to Guam,” he said.

When he grew up, Payne served our country as well but later fell on hard times after suffering job loss and injury.  

For the past five years, he’s lived in housing provided by the VA and The Homeless Alliance.

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Willard Payne

It’s one of two major struggles far too many Oklahoma veterans are enduring; homelessness and suicide- dire issues state leadership has zeroed in on.

“It’s clear it’s an all-hands-on-deck in Oklahoma and I think that’s the right approach there, a very broad approach, not just let’s fix homelessness, let’s fix suicide. The idea that you’re talking about them as connected, I think is a good thing,” said Col. Michael Hudson, a veteran’s mental health expert.

While help is available, the trouble is reaching those who need it.

That’s why Oklahoma VA leadership says they are educating doctors, faith groups, gun shop owners and more about where veterans can go for help.

“So we kind of teasingly say where they work, where they learn, where they pray, where they play,” said Aaron Ashworth, with the Oklahoma State Dept. of Veteran’s Affairs.

Some veterans go on to work for the VA itself, providing a common ground few can relate to.

“Sometimes it’s hard for them to give up their macho man stuff and ask for help, but that’s what I had to do, go in and ask for help and luckily the VA was here for me,” said Randy Hunter, a veteran who formerly struggled with homelessness before finding a job with the VA.

“They’ll get you going again,” Payne said. “You just have to want it. That’s the main thing.”

If you or someone you know needs help from the VA, we’re told the place to start is oklahoma.gov/veterans.

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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