In 2012, Michael Marshall was homeless. Now, thanks to the support he received from the HUD-VASH program, he works at the Jesse Brown Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Chicago, Illinois, as a certified peer support specialist. The formerly homeless Veteran’s job – and his personal goal – is to support Veterans like himself who have experienced homelessness.

In 2019, Marshall received an email about a volunteer opportunity with the Veterans School at Work (VSAW) program from Beatrice Smith-Redd, a community employment coordinator at Jesse Brown. He was immediately intrigued. VSAW combines education with career planning to prepare Veterans for successful employment or higher education. Smith-Redd recognized that Marshall could serve as an inspiration to Veterans on the path from homelessness to employment.

“Marshall’s inspirational journey from homelessness to employment gives Veterans the hope and faith in themselves that they need to move forward and achieve their dreams,” said Smith-Redd. “His experience with VA supportive programs is a great example of how much VA programs can help Veterans; and as a peer support specialist, he has the skills to effectively coach VSAW participants – to literally change their lives.”

A helping hand for fellow Veterans

The VSAW program lasts for 13 weeks and includes instruction in topics such as communication in the workplace and life management skills, as well as refreshers in grammar, reading, writing and math. VSAW also provides career coaching that is adapted to meet each Veteran’s specific needs and is facilitated by VA Community Employment Coordinators such as Smith-Redd.

During Marshall’s first session as an official VSAW coach, he began engaging with Veterans by sharing his own experiences and was able to relate to them on a personal level. When participants faced tough times, Marshall was there to provide motivation and support.

“As I saw each Veteran gain confidence and believe in themselves again, it was amazing,” said Marshall. “They started becoming more confident in their class work, along with how they spoke and interacted. Coaching VSAW has been a miraculously spiritual journey for me.”

Marshall is a living testament to the success of VA programs. He graduated from the HUD-VASH program in 2016 by demonstrating stability through paying rent and other bills on time, completing his case management goals and more. He was eventually promoted to his dream job of peer support specialist in 2018, and in 2019, Marshall became a homeowner.

“I told the VSAW participants you can do it, too,” said Marshall, “I am you, and you are me at different times in our journey.”

Now Marshall meets with Veterans several times a week to make sure they complete the VSAW program and then find employment. Smith-Redd encourages coaches like Marshall to persevere and not give up on Veterans in the program.

“The VSAW program provides an opportunity for Veterans to refresh their skills and prepares them for success in the workplace,” said Smith-Redd. “It’s also an excellent opportunity for VA staff members to give back and share their skills and experiences by helping a Veteran succeed in employment and career endeavors. It’s a win-win for everyone involved.”

More Information
  • Find a Community Resource and Referral Center near you to gain access to VA and non-VA benefits.
  • Learn more about VA’s programs for Veterans who are homeless at
  • Veterans who are homeless or at risk of homelessness should contact the National Call Center for Homeless Veterans at 877-4AID-VET (877-424-3838).
  • If you are a Veteran in crisis or concerned about one, there are caring, qualified VA responders standing by to help 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Call 1-800-273-8255 and Press 1.

Leisa Davis is a program analyst with the VHA Homeless Programs Office.

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Published on Feb. 23, 2021

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