By Elisha Harig-Blaine
Last week in Tampa, FL, NLC's Executive Director made the issue of homelessness among veterans personal.
While speaking to about 150 people gathered to develop action steps to end veteran homelessness in their communities, Clarence Anthony talked about the impact of the Vietnam War on his cousin, "Boot."
He related: "He went off to Vietnam a vibrant, young man, excited about life and what it offered. But he came home distant, troubled, struggling with substance abuse. We loved him. We always loved him. But no matter what we did, we never were able to get him to come around. It hurt my Aunt, it hurt my Mom, and it hurt me and all my cousins. Homelessness doesn't just affect that person; it affects a whole lot of other people and this is particularly tragic when it's happening to those men and women who have served our country."
The personal insight offered a unique perspective from a national leader and former long-time Mayor of South Bay, Florida about the importance of local and national leaders getting involved in the fight to end homelessness among veterans.
The event was a "veteran boot camp," organized by the 100,000 Homes Campaign and the Rapid Results Institute. NLC is also a national campaign partner. Attendees came from the Miami/South Florida region; Tampa; Central Texas; Houston; and the Dallas/Fort Worth area to join national organizations and senior officials from the U.S. Interagency Council to End Homelessness (USICH), the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), and U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).
For years, a goal of the federal government has been to get communities to adopt Ten-Year Plans to End Homelessness. The intent of these plans is to start important conversations in cities across the country. While the plans have been helpful, it is increasingly being recognized that on-the-ground organizing of community resources and stakeholders is needed. Stakeholders at the national and local levels understand that operational conversations about the day-to-day actions of individuals and organizations are needed in order for stakeholders to work more effectively and efficiently with one another toward the shared goal of ending homelessness.
The attendees from Central Texas were one example of the on-the-ground stakeholders involved with the event. There were representatives from an affordable housing provider, the City of Waco, Travis County, the federal VA office, a low-income healthcare provider and the City of Austin's Housing Authority. Staff from these agencies took time at the boot camp to talk about what they are doing well, and what could be improved in key areas such as making data-driven decisions, targeting/prioritizing resources and more.
One lesson from the event was that attendees from most communities knew a lot about what they did and some about what others did, but there was no person or group with a comprehensive overview of all the resources available to help veterans with their housing needs and how those resources could work together. As a result, it is difficult for the available resources to be used in the most effective way possible.
How Do You Fix That?
The City of Phoenix, AZ faced similar challenges. With the help of the Arizona Department of Veteran Services and the Valley of the Sun United Way, the city created a "Navigator" position to help veterans figure out issues including: what resources are needed, what resources are available, what organization is administering which resources, what the application process is for each program, what documents are needed for each program application, and how applicants can locate any missing documents.
The navigator positions were critical to the City of Phoenix being able to target the available resources to the people most in need. The result was that the chronically homeless veteran population went from 222 in February 2012 to 154 in March 2013, a drop of more than 30 percent.
Now that the City of Phoenix has identified what needs to happen to make sure the appropriate resources are available to those that need them, they are situated to be able to identify which homeless veterans should receive assistance from resources such as HUD-VA Supportive Housing (HUD-VASH) vouchers and the Supportive Services for Homeless Veterans (SSVF).
Phoenix is on the way to ending chronic homelessness among veterans. To ensure the navigator positions continue, the City has issued a Request for Proposals (RFP) for organizations that would continue the work of helping the chronically homeless access the most appropriate resources.
In addition to identifying key systemic needs, such as the role of the navigators, Phoenix has had the leadership and involvement of Mayor Greg Stanton and several City Councilmembers. Their leadership has brought additional publicity to efforts that have already raised public awareness and introduced a level of accountability among stakeholders that is helping drive the city's progress.
Fortunately, Phoenix is Not Alone in This Great Work
The 100,000 Homes Campaign has learned that in order to end homelessness over the next four years, a community needs to place 2.5 percent of their chronic and vulnerable populations in housing each month. If the 2.5 percent mark is reached each month, that community can end homelessness in their city.
Large and small, urban and rural, cities all across the county are committed to this mission. For the past three consecutive months, two dozen cities have reached the 2.5 percent mark, including:
Homelessness isn't ust bad social policy, it is bad fiscal policy.
In 2010, the USICH unveiled their Opening Doors plan to end homelessness. This plan was revised in 2012 detailing the federal plan to end chronic and veteran homelessness by 2015. Since then, homelessness among veterans has fallen 18 percent.
The latest budget proposal from the Administration shows a continued commitment to this plan and its goal. The President's FY 2014 budget proposal continues to increase investment in effective strategies by including $75 million for the (HUD-VASH) program and $300 million for the SSVF program.
The involvement of local leaders with stakeholders working to end homeless is critical. Local leaders help raise the profile of the work that is happening, highlight the importance of the work for a community from a moral standpoint, and also from a fiscal standpoint. For years, the data has been mounting about the benefits of placing the chronically homeless in housing and ensuring they have the necessary support services in place as well.
It's frustrating that the notion of a Ten Year Plan to End Homelessness is already nearly 12 years old. But what is more frustrating is that during a time when funding is harder to come by, the resources that are already in place in many cities and towns are not being used as efficiently as possible.
As Clarence Anthony spoke at the 100,000 Homes Campaign's "veteran boot camp" about the rippling impact that homelessness has on families and communities, there was a clear sense of agreement throughout the audience.
"With more veterans coming into our cities as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan wind down, we must commit ourselves to not repeat the mistakes of the past with this generation of veterans," said Anthony. "You all are on the front line of making sure that doesn't happen in your city and NLC is proud to be here with you and we support your work to engage with local leaders as you plan an end to homelessness among veterans."
Details: For more information about NLC's work with the 100,000 Homes Campaign and to learn what you can do to support efforts to end veterans homelessness in your city, contact Elisha Harig-Blaine, NLC's Senior Housing Associate, at firstname.lastname@example.org.