Tina Mikes works with nonprofit organization to keep veterans from becoming homeless

As Tina Mikes recalls, she had her “a-ha moment” in 2010, while working in Camden as a quality-assurance manager for the decennial U.S. census.

As part of her responsibilities, the Rutgers–Camden graduate had to count the homeless population living in “tent city,” a homeless encampment located beside I-676 near the 5A exit. Arriving there late one evening, she was introduced to Lorenzo Banks, the camp’s self-appointed mayor, who agreed to assist her. Mikes asked for his identification card and, to her surprise, discovered that – just like her – he was a United States veteran. The two struck up conversation, and she informed him of the programs and services that are available for homeless veterans.

“That incident stuck with me, and I wondered what happened to him after that,” recalls Mikes, who served as a communications specialist in the United States Army.

Tina Mikes

Today, the Maple Shade resident can be heard offering similar words of support and encouragement as a case manager for Soldier On. The private, nonprofit organization aims to prevent veteran homelessness by providing case management, referral services, and temporary financial assistance for housing, to veterans and their family members in need. “We can help prevent veterans from becoming homeless, if they’ve fallen behind on their rent or they can’t pay their bills,” explains Mikes, who graduated magna cum laude from Rutgers–Camden in May with a bachelor’s degree in social work.

Mikes is currently one of  six case managers assisting veterans in New Jersey, covering eight counties – Middlesex, Monmouth, Ocean, Mercer, Burlington, Hudson, Essex, and Bergen – and counting. With the organization based in Leeds, Mass., she is provided with a vehicle and all of the necessary resources to work independently from the field. Typically, veterans are referred to her or inquire about services by contacting the organization’s toll-free number at 1-866-406-8449. Mikes then meets individually with each veteran to perform a needs assessment, and works collaboratively with him or her to devise a personalized service plan. The objectives address a wide range of personal, financial and health issues, including substance abuse, mental health, medical needs, finances, education, and employment.

“We try to probe and cover all aspects of where they need help,” says Mikes. “We act as their case worker and social worker, and are there for them on every avenue of assistance that we can be. We are not just there to fix their housing; we are trying to fix the situation that got them into that financial bind.”

While it can be a “humbling” experience, Mikes is grateful for the privilege to help her fellow veterans, and takes great pride in accompanying them through the process every step of the way.

She attributes her hands-on training in the Social Work Program at Rutgers–Camden for providing a solid foundation to work with special-needs populations. She explains that the curriculum departs from a traditional test-taking approach, and engages students in real-life experiences and discussions. She recalls benefiting markedly from serving an internship at Brookfield Elementary School, an alternative school in Haddon Heights that caters to students in need of intensive behavioral and therapeutic intervention. “That experience made me more well-rounded, and helped me to realize that every population has their specific needs,” she says.

Mikes also gained invaluable experience working with veterans as an assistant to Fred Davis, campus director for the Office of Veterans Affairs at Rutgers–Camden. The position connected her with many veterans’ groups as well as to a variety of organizations that provide social, financial and health services to veterans. “Had I not worked with veterans before, I probably wouldn’t know a lot of what I do now,” she says.

She also became active in the thriving veterans community on campus, serving as treasurer for the Student Veterans at Rutgers–Camden. Above all, she relished the camaraderie that they shared, citing repeated examples of this special, unwritten bond. Such was the case this past summer  when eight student veterans from Rutgers–Camden showed up out of the blue – including a few whom she barely knew – and helped her and her children, Laryssa, 11, and D.J., 2, move into their new apartment.

As Mikes recalls, she has cherished that special connection amongst servicemen and women since serving in the Army from 2000 to 2003 as a specialist on a tactical communications team in South Korea and Germany. In 2003, her unit was called to Iraq. However, with her husband also serving active duty in the Army, she was given the option to honorably separate from the military to raise their four-month-old daughter. Mikes made what was admittedly a difficult decision to do so, leaving her with a nagging feeling of unfinished business.

After returning to the United States, Mikes earned her associate’s degree in elementary and secondary education at Cumberland County College, and worked for a Head Start Program for migrant children in Bridgeton, N.J. She then worked for the decennial census before arriving at Rutgers–Camden in spring 2011 to pursue her bachelor’s degree in social work.

Still seeking closure for an abridged military career, Mikes intends to dedicate her career service to her fellow veterans. Ultimately, she would like to earn her master’s degree in social work, and work in a clinical setting with veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, and with military families coping with the challenges of separation that the military brings, including long, overseas deployments. “I may not have retired from the military,” she says, “but I can work with veterans and their families for the rest of my life.”