After years of health issues, addiction, and homelessness, Navy Veteran Dawn Densel is healthy, has stable housing and works for the federal government, thanks to VA and its many programs for Veterans experiencing homelessness.

Densel, who joined the Navy in 1992, was one of the first women to serve in a naval mobile construction battalion. She was honorably discharged from the military in 1996 because of a shoulder injury.

Upon returning home, Densel began working in law enforcement. But addiction and health issues led her to resign after just one year.

“I was severely depressed when I got out,” said Densel. “There’s things you have to worry about that you didn’t have to worry about in the military, like shelter, food and health care. You also lose the family environment that you had in the military.”

In early 2017, Densel checked herself into the VA Psychosocial Residential Rehabilitation Treatment program in Biloxi to help her get sober. After completing treatment, Densel entered Harbor House, a transitional living facility in Pensacola to continue her journey of getting her life back on track. At Harbor House, Densel met Mary Franklin, a Community Employment Coordinator who would become her cheerleader and eventual colleague. After graduating from Harbor House, Densel completed two additional VA homeless programs that gave her the tools, resources, and support she needed to begin building the life and career she had envisioned for herself.

“Dawn went through our Housing and Urban Development-VA Supportive Housing program, the Grant and Per Diem program, and the HCHV program,” said Jodie Picciano-Swanson, the Homeless Program manager. “Dawn had strong goals and achieved them with the help of our supportive staff, but she was the real driving force.”

Homeless programs offer a brand-new start

Densel’s career at VA began in April 2019 when she was hired by the Pensacola VA Joint Ambulatory Care Center, where she was one of very few women working with the Environmental Management Service (EMS). After only 10 months, Densel was honored as “Rookie of the Year,” for her outstanding work. After a year in her initial position, she was promoted — not to EMS lead, which would have been the next step up, but two steps up — to supervisor of EMS for the Mobile Outpatient Clinic at Gulf Coast Veterans Health Care System.

“I’m not ashamed of any part of my journey. I’ve been clean and sober since 2017,” said Densel. “These programs have really helped me get back on my feet. Without VA’s homeless programs, I wouldn’t be on my way to work right now for a government job.”

Densel now helps Veterans who are participating in Mobile homeless programs while working in EMS. As someone who has gone through several homeless programs and started her federal career working in EMS, Densel is able to relate to and inspire these Veterans every day.

“A goal of mine is to become a peer support specialist,” said Densel. “I’m a people person; I could talk to a fence post. I’ve also struggled with addiction and legal issues, and with all of that combined with where I am today, I feel like I could really change the lives of other Veterans.”

More information

Jodie Picciano-Swanson, LCSW, ACSW is the homeless program manager for the Gulf Coast Veterans Healthcare System and is the acting network homeless coordinator for Veterans Integrated Service Network 16.

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Published on Mar. 31, 2021

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