HAMPTON — The Hampton VA Medical Center serves an area that stretches well beyond its home city, which presents a challenge in reaching the region's far-flung homeless veterans.
They can be anywhere: in shelters, at soup kitchens, under bridges or in the woods.
That's why the donation of a new passenger van dedicated to homeless outreach prompted a full-blown ribbon-cutting ceremony this week on the medical center's campus.
"One of the barriers to care for the homeless is transportation, and getting them to appointments," said Dr. Priscilla Hankins, Hampton VA chief of mental health.
The homeless program has relied on vehicles from a general pool, but having a dedicated passenger van will make its mission much easier.
Marti Chick-Ebey can tick off the places she visits on a regular basis: Union Mission Ministries in Norfolk, the Oasis Opportunity Center in Portsmouth and weekday soup kitchen at St. Vincent de Paul Catholic Church in Newport News, just to name a few.
"We've been doing that for many years, but we've only had a small mini-van," she said.
But while the ribbon-cutting made for a nice event, it would not have been possible without the generosity of a family whose son graduated from West Point and became an Army helicopter pilot, but died before his first combat deployment.
1st Lt. Gregory F. Zavota had a special place in his heart for homeless people, said his mother, Lisa. A Massachusetts native, he worked in a soup kitchen while in high school and lavished attention on panhandlers. Lisa, who now lives in Florida, said her son died in 2007 in a non-military accident. He had just turned 24.
"He just had a major impact on people," she said. "I think he always put other people before himself."
After his death, the family received $400,000 in insurance benefits. Instead of spending it on themselves, they funneled it into the kind of charitable causes that their son would have wanted.
The family established scholarships in his name. They funded the renovation of a physical therapy unit at a Rhode Island veterans facility. And they purchased four vans for homeless outreach, donating them to the VA.
Hampton was one of the four VA medical centers that received one.
According to Hankins, the Hampton region has one of the highest populations of homeless veterans in the VA's Mid-Atlantic Health Care Network, which spans West Virginia, Virginia and North Carolina, and includes eight medical centers
The VA has established a call system for veterans who want to know more about resources for the homeless. The Hampton region consistently ranks in the top 10 in the nation in the volume of calls, she added.
Chick-Ebey said the homeless veteran population is changing, too. Forget the stereotype of the homeless veteran sitting by the roadside with a sign, pleading for help. While those may be the most visible, many homeless veterans have job skills and an employment history, but they've just fallen on hard times.
"We see a lot of veterans who worked in construction or roofing, and as they get older they can't do those occupations," said Chick-Ebey. "But they're not sick enough to get disability."
"Our population has just changed so much," she added. "It used to be more stereotypical folks with mental health and substance abuse. But now, 27 percent of our hotline callers last year were families."