Jerry DeWitt addresses the crowd gathered at Veterans Memorial Park in Lewiston in September of 2018 during the dedication ceremony of a memorial bench. Sun Journal file photo

Jerry DeWitt of New Gloucester has spent much of his life helping veterans in some way, shape or form.

Jerry DeWitt, in brown, at the 2018 Veterans Day ceremony at Veterans Memorial Park in Lewiston. Sun Journal file photo

DeWitt, who spent 28 years with the Army in the medical field, has spent his retirement from the Army as a veterans outreach specialist at Tri-County Mental Health Services and as chairman of the Lewiston-Auburn Veterans Council.

He has also served as national chairman for the American Red Cross Services to Veterans and Families and national chairman for Veterans Affairs Voluntary Services.

While DeWitt’s duties with Tri-County Mental Health Services run the gamut, one of the services he offers is helping homeless veterans.

That topic will be the sole item discussed during the annual conference of the Maine Military & Community Network at 8 a.m. March 11 at the University of Southern Maine Lewiston-Auburn campus at 51 Westminster St.

DeWitt, a member of the Maine Military & Community Network, said he hopes the conference gets a large turnout.

“Every year, there are more homeless people being documented in Maine,” DeWitt said. “I want to make sure people hear what we have to say about it.”

Jerry DeWitt 2018 Sun Journal file photo

Name: Jerry DeWitt

Age: 73

Occupation: Veterans Outreach Specialist at Tri-County Mental Health Services

Hometown: New Gloucester

What is your role at Tri-County Mental Health Services as veteran outreach specialist? Oh, the list goes on forever. I work with veterans and their families on a lot of different things. I help schedule veterans for veterans court, deal with funeral issues and help them fill out discharge papers. I also help them look for jobs and deal with Social Security and health care issues. Sometimes, I might provide information on suicide prevention or how homeless veterans can get clothes and food and reach out for help.

How did the idea for a conference at USM on veteran homelessness come about? The idea for the conference came out of the Maine Military Community Network in Lewiston, which meets on the last Wednesday of every month at Tri-County. At these meetings, we talk about veterans and military families and explain what we’re doing in our organization and making sure we’re doing everything we can for them. One year, we focused on opiates. This year, we decided to focus on homeless veterans.

Jerry DeWitt Submitted photo

For the last eight years, the Maine State Housing Authority has done a “point in time” survey on homelessness in Maine where they survey all sheltered and unsheltered homeless people over 24 hours and document it. The survey takes place at the end of January, and it’s been done in coordination with Catholic charities for the last eight years.

One of the things made clear from the survey is that homelessness is a problem all throughout the state, and not just with veterans. It’s also a mental health issue, an opioid issue, and a domestic violence issue. Every year we find more homeless people in the state of Maine, especially in Lewiston and Auburn. Right now, we’ve got 60 active and open cases of veterans being served (at Tri-County Mental Health Services) for homelessness.

What can people expect at the conference? We actually have a pretty big keynote speaker for the conference: Phil Allen, someone who is nationally known for his work associated with ending and preventing homelessness, especially with veterans. He’s worked out of state and has also helped with programs in Maine surrounding veterans.

In addition to the experts we have speaking, we also have some people going through homelessness right now that are going to speak. I think it’s important to hear directly from people who are going through it right now. It’s not easy to be homeless in Maine at the end of January.

What are you and the Maine Military & Community Network hoping to achieve through the conference? One of the things I hope comes out of this is more affordable housing. That would be big. I know the governor recently signed a bill for more affordable housing, so hopefully, if we can get the information out there, we can get more.

Unfortunately, a lot of these social issues have a political component to it. A lot of our funds come from the federal government. I know Sen. Angus King will have a representative at the conference, so hopefully, they’ll hear something new to take back to the senator, and he can come up with an idea to help with the problem.

What branch of the military did you serve in? How long did you serve? I served off-and-on in the Army from 1964 to 2008. If you take all the years together, I served 28 years. I started out in artillery, where I shot big guns in Korea, but I smartened up and got my bachelor’s and master’s (degrees) in nursing and worked in the medical field. I’ve been all around the world with the Army. In 2008, I went to Iraq with the American Red Cross.

For work, before I was with Tri-County as a veterans outreach specialist, I was an EMT from 1976 to 2009. I’ve also worked as a nurse at St. Mary’s emergency room.

Is the conference free to attend, or is there a fee? Whoever wants to register for the conference can e-mail me at [email protected] It costs $15, unless you can’t afford it. If you can’t pay the $15, just talk with me and we’ll figure something out. We want to make sure people attend this and are able to hear what we’re sharing.

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