Two men standing in a room act out a scene, while two sitting men watch them.
Improv classes at Liberation Veteran Services help veterans experiencing homelessness strengthen self-advocacy and problem-solving skills, while health care students learn to mindfully listen to reduce the stigma of homelessness. (Photo courtesy Elizabeth Byland)

How saying ‘Yes, and …’ is helping veterans who are experiencing homelessness

The classic improv technique equips veterans — and their health care providers — to contribute mindfully to the present moment.

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A year ago, Elizabeth Byland thought her “Applied Improv to Impact Homelessness” project would last a couple of months. The project implements improv techniques both to strengthen self-advocacy and problem-solving skills among people experiencing homelessness and to reduce the stigma of homelessness among health care practitioners.

Instead, the classes at Liberation Veteran Services — which provides transitional housing for veterans, many of whom are transitioning back into civilian life and facing challenges such as post-traumatic stress disorder — have grown into a weekly meeting for veterans and health care students.

Improv is rooted in one universal rule, said Byland, head of improv with the VCU School of the Arts Department of Theatre and director of applied health improv with the Center for Interprofessional Education and Collaborative Care. That rule is “Yes, and …”

“This rule is the guidepost for all that we do in improv,” she said. “It reminds us to listen, affirm and acknowledge others, and contribute mindfully to the present moment. This all requires an incredible amount of vulnerability and trust in others and ourselves. Heck, even just to slow down and listen to someone — and I mean really listen — to be affected and changed by another requires us to hold space for others. It's much easier said than done, especially in today's fast-paced world.”

Each week, the class explores a topic that is applicable to both improv and life. For example, being active in waiting periods. Many of the veterans as well as the students are in a period of waiting: waiting for the housing voucher, waiting for their residency placements, waiting for disability to kick in, waiting for the next paycheck, waiting for the next intern assignment, waiting on test results.

“The list goes on and on,” Byland said. “The anxiety of a waiting period creates such overwhelming noise of fear and panic that it becomes difficult to stay present on the now. Improv reminds us that it’s OK if we don't know what's to come, it’s OK if we can’t see what lies ahead. And yes, it’s scary to not have all the answers. But improv also teaches us to just focus on this moment right now. What can we do in this moment right now? What can I do that adds purpose and intention to this period of waiting?”

A look inside the improv classes for veterans and health care students held at Liberation Veteran Services. The project implements improv techniques both to strengthen self-advocacy and problem-solving skills among people experiencing homelessness and to reduce the stigma of homelessness among health care practitioners.

The response has been incredible, Byland said.

One individual (out of respect for privacy, names are not provided) shared with the class that he had overdosed the night before. Byland was surprised to see him. But, he said, “I knew I could have stayed in bed tonight, but I remember what you said about saying yes to life so I wanted to say ‘yes’ to getting up and coming here tonight.” 

Today, that gentleman has secured a full-time job — that he loves — and a two-bedroom house with a doggie door. “I've never had a dog,” he said, “but I got a doggie door, so I guess it's time to say yes to getting me a dog!”

Another veteran said, “I’ve had a lot of anxiety and [was] overwhelmed about doing certain things. I find it hard to communicate. This class gave me more courage and new ways of thinking about communicating.”

This veteran has since secured housing and reconnected with his family.

The program is garnering international attention.

Byland presented “Applied Improv to Impact Homelessness” at the Applied Improvisation Network World Conference in Spain this summer. Next week, she will present her work at the Association of American Medical Colleges annual conference.

Consistency is key to the program’s success.

Both health care students and veterans are constantly experiencing change and adaptation, Byland noted.

“Health care is an industry that is forever evolving,” she said. “Gosh, just look at how much it’s had to adapt and evolve since Covid. The same for the residents at LVS. They are literally experiencing not just a transition but a life transformation. So being consistent with my format, my energy, my showing up was critical in securing the commitment and trust from my participants.”

Watching the two groups come together is incredibly powerful for Byland.

“At the beginning of this program, I was confident that improv could make an impact,” Byland said. “But this program reinforced my belief that anyone can do improv, and for the veterans, their bravery is fluid.

“And providing this kind of training to those voices in our community that have been underrepresented is critical to preserving and fostering humanity. Specifically, the clients at Liberation Veteran Services are veteran men moving through homelessness, while rebuilding their personal and professional lives. … This kind of learning experience gives them the opportunity to share their voices and creatively collaborate with health care students without fear of judgment.”