Serving Veterans in Rural America Requires City Engagement
After enduring years of Vermont winters on the streets, a homeless veteran finally found a place to call home through a partnership between regional nonprofits, the Veterans Administration and the City of Winooski, a town with a population of less than 7,300.
When asked about the impact on his life, he said, “this program has helped me stay sober for three years. I have been given not just a physical home, but also a state of mind home, and that is a great feeling.”
Replicating this success with other veterans in largely rural areas like Winooski requires regional cooperation between many stakeholders to overcome the unique challenges of long distances and sparsely populated areas.
From Service to Shelter, a report released this week by the Housing Assistance Council (HAC) and The Home Depot Foundation, highlights the troubling prevalence of veteran homelessness in rural America, resources available to address the issue and models for successful implementation.
The report found that veterans are over-represented in the homeless population in rural areas, and the overall rural veteran population is getting older. Currently, 43 percent of veterans in rural America are aged 65 or older, and that number is expected to rise to 70 percent in the next 10 years.
In recognition of these challenges and facts, a collaborative effort between HUD, VA and the Department of Labor has been piloted in five communities near major military installations. The Veteran Homelessness Prevention Demonstration (VHPD) targeted two of its locations near Ft. Hood and Ft. Drum, both of which have significant rural areas nearby.
While the pilot program’s evaluation is not yet finalized, two primary concerns and possible solutions have already emerged. The first challenge is not surprising. The large geographic size of rural areas makes service delivery challenging. To ease this challenge, officials are looking at ways to co-locate services delivered by federal agencies. By having all assistance in one stop, people can avoid multiple and costly trips.
The second challenge is the increased levels of isolation and the stigma associated with getting “help.” In a small community, the sense that “everyone knows everyone” appears to have the effect of discouraging people from accessing services that could help bring them out of homelessness. Federal officials realize that changing the location and manner of how services are delivered will be necessary to overcome this barrier. The precise process for doing this will require the insights and help of local leaders who can assist their federal partners with a more nuanced understanding of their community.
Efforts such as VHPD are part of an unprecedented level of federal support for homeless veterans. In support of the federal goal to end veteran homelessness by 2015, the Administration has dramatically increased the availability of resources that serve veterans.
With the availability of resources at an all-time high, local coordination is the principal challenge. Having service providers identify homeless veterans, assess their needs in a coordinated manner and prioritize the delivery of services ensures that the right resources are delivered to the right person at the right time. Progress is being made and is reflected by the 24 percent reduction in veteran homelessness since 2010.
To help ensure veterans in rural areas have a safe place to call home, The Home Depot Foundation is partnering with HAC as part of its Affordable Housing for Rural Veterans Initiative. Through the initiative, HAC and The Home Depot Foundation have awarded grants totaling more than $260,000 to nine local nonprofit housing associations to build or preserve housing for veterans in rural America.
In addition to the grants, HAC provides rural nonprofits serving veterans with training, research and other assistance to help increase their capacity and allow them to better serve their communities.
To date, organizations in Maine, Washington, Tennessee, Texas and Florida have received assistance allowing nearly 100 veterans and their families to have a new home.
In the next month, an additional $250,000 in grants will be announced. For more information about HAC’s work for veterans in rural areas, visit www.ruralhome.org/veterans or contact Janice Clark at Janice@ruralhome.org.
About the Author: Elisha Harig-Blaine is the Principal Associate for Housing (Veterans and Special Needs) at NLC. Follow Elisha on Twitter at @HarigBlaine.