Backpack Project in Omaha-metro brings warmth, hope to veterans

Celebrating Veterans Day at the Siena Francis House with others who have struggled after service, the veteran said the camaraderie remains important to all of them.
Programs nationally and locally that serve them are working one veteran at a time.
Published: Nov. 11, 2022 at 11:14 PM CST
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OMAHA, Neb. (WOWT) - Ricky Washington is a success story, but he knows it’s only for a day at a time.

After his service as an Army medic, the Northwest Omaha High School graduate came home to start a family but lost them to his addiction. Now at 57, he’s spent decades finding his way back.

“[Losing my wife and children] really started the decline, the spiral,” he said. “I never wanted to do anything other than [be with them], because she and the kids were gone and that was my life. But I realize now that with or without them I [have to know] this is possible.”

“This” Ricky refers to is staying off the street, sober, and employed at the VA Nebraska-Western Iowa Health Care System.

Celebrating Veterans Day at the Siena Francis House with others who have struggled after service, he said the camaraderie remains important to all of them.

“They’ve walked this walk, they understand it,” he said. “When they see me kind of get a little a little wayward they’re like, bring it back in you know, they’re checking on me, make sure I’m all right.”

He was one of the dozens of veterans who received bags filled with lifesaving items from Bellevue University Military Veterans Services’ Backpack Project. The backpack has actually been replaced by an army-style duffle bag due to the many items they receive as donations, including socks, jackets, toiletries, reusable water bottles, and hand warmers. Every little bit of help can be a difference for men and women facing the three “h’s” this winter: homelessness, hurt, and hunger.

“You know being able to come together as a community and bring the love and the warmth to them, making sure that they are honored on a day that recognizes them, is really the heartbeat of all of this,” Bellevue University Veterans Service Center manager Heather Carroll said. Carroll is a veteran, too, and said they are always reaching out to the homeless veterans who don’t make it off the streets for help.

The data from federal and local research shows that the number of homeless veterans is going down across the country. But that doesn’t take into account those who haven’t been counted because they remain off the grid or under the throes of illness.

“I know guys that they just don’t know how to ask for the help, they don’t know how to take the help,” he said. “It’s there, the Siena Francis House and other missions around town, they’re good at helping you, you just have to know how to receive it.”

Sister Stephanie Matcha of the Notre Dame Sisters has been working with the Siena Francis House for 25 years and said she’s seen how government housing programs to offer displaced veterans places to live have worked.

“Because of the Veterans [Affairs] and the Biden and Trump Administrations putting more money into housing homeless vets, the number of veterans started going down who were homeless,” she said. “I think it’s unfortunate to ever put those two words together in one sentence because they deserve better.”

Ricky may be technically homeless while living and recovering in the Siena Francis House, but he knows firsthand that he’s in a much better situation than many others. And he said he speaks with his three daughters and their families regularly, something he wasn’t sure he would be able to do many years ago.