Unique Collaborations Needed in Rural America to Meet Veteran Housing Needs

With the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan beginning to wind down, more than one million veterans will be coming home by 2016. These men and women will come home changed by their experiences to communities that have also changed while they were away. Some of the changes to veterans are positive. However, the reality is that some veterans return home with visible and/or not visible wounds that require unique solutions to meet their needs around housing, employment, education, health and family supports. In urban or suburban environments, where community resources are located only minutes away, meeting these varying needs is a challenge. In rural areas, where resources can be hours away, meeting these needs can seem impossible.

Meeting the housing needs of veterans in rural areas is a uniquely important yet challenging task that will grow in the coming years. Of the approximately 22 million veterans living today, about 6.1 million already live in rural areas. While not all of these veterans are enrolled with the Veterans Administration (VA) to receive services, of those who are, nearly 43% live in rural areas. An estimated 914,000 veterans with a service-connected disability are from rural areas and roughly one-third (31.9%) of VA-enrolled veterans who served in Iraq and/or Afghanistan are expected to return to their hometowns in rural areas.

Like everyone, veterans need affordable and accessible housing in order to stabilize their lives. Similarly, the housing needs of veterans vary depending on their level of disability. Some veterans have experienced chronic homelessness and/or have disabilities that require intensive and on-going supportive services. Other veterans have lived independently for decades, but are now aging and require modifications to their homes to allow them to continue living independently. Still others fall in the middle of these two examples and require periodic assistance with medical appointments, grocery shopping or other tasks. With secure housing and the appropriate levels of assistance and care, veterans can establish themselves in communities and begin to find ways they may be able to continue to serve, using their skills and experiences from the military. To best meet the needs of veterans with disabilities from across this spectrum, we have to first know what need exists.

For a contextual understanding of the veteran population, there are two primary locations for data. The first is the National Center for Veteran Analysis and Statistics (NCVAS). The NCVAS is within the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and serves to collect, analyze, and disseminate key statistics. The other primary source of data about veterans is the U.S. Census Bureau. In addition to information collected during the decennial census, the Census Bureau conducts an annual survey of approximately three million households with the American Community Survey. By using the publically available data tool, American FactFinder, city leaders can find information about their community in areas such as age, race, income, employment, household size, disability status, veteran status and more. These data sources can give a better understanding of the veteran population in a community and provide a baseline of information that can encourage others in the community to form partnerships aimed at increasing cooperation and support for housing for veterans with disabilities.

While an understanding of veteran needs from the 30,000 foot level can be helpful to get efforts started, nothing can replace locally available knowledge. This is particularly true in rural areas, where developing and using personal relationships can be either a source of great assistance, or yet another obstacle to overcome. Resources available through regional VA medical centers need to be understood and connected with community delivered resources. Conversations with the public affairs office at military installations, and with National Guard or military reserve units can also be starting points for identifying what resources exist, and are needed, for veterans locally. Additionally, conversations with local service and veteran organizations like the VFW and/or American Legion can be helpful, as can conversations with church leaders, community action agencies and hospitals.

Knowing what resources are available can be as important as knowing how they are connected to eligible veterans. Understanding the community engagement process can identify areas of strength that can be enhanced or replicated, as well as areas of improvement that require attention. Just as important as what veterans have and do not have access to, is what organizations veterans already use and trust for help. Trusted organizations are places to contact for lessons about what is or is not working. These groups are likely able to provide insights about what steps are needed to make meaningful and lasting improvements for veterans.

After getting a sense of what the community’s needs are and what resources exist and are being utilized, the process can begin to effectively fill any gaps. In some cases, enhancing communication between veterans, community stakeholders and military resources is a primary need. Engaging with locally elected officials to emphasize the importance of better community communication may help eliminate or reduce some service gaps. However, in some areas, specific resources may not be offered by anyone in a particular area.

In Port Angeles, WA, there was a need for supportive housing for homeless veterans. Port Angeles is located in Clallum County, a large and sparsely populated county in the northwest corner of the state. More than 40% of county residents live in one of three cities and in parts of the county there are less than 10 people per square mile. Like many rural areas, Clallum County has a higher unemployment rate than the rest of the state as well as higher levels of poverty, making housing even less affordable.

To better meet the needs of the homeless in Port Angeles and across Clallum County, leaders recognized the need to address limitations around financial resources and professional staff capacity. Central to overcoming these challenges has been regional planning and partnerships. For example, during the development of capital projects, officials found that investments were more easily found when three or four partners were involved. Partnerships between homeless agencies, housing agencies, behavioral health groups or veteran groups used detailed memorandums of understanding, contractual agreements and other partnership documents to avoid problems and proactively address the concerns of investors. As the number of successful collaborations has grown, new partnerships have been formed with non-housing partners like the Department of Corrections and the Family Court system.

To assist homeless veterans, Serenity House, a non-profit housing developer, partnered with the local Habitat for Humanity to build a 28-unit supportive housing development called Maloney Heights. The Habitat affiliate owned a parcel of land next to property owned by Serenity House that was zoned for medium-density residential use. In order to maximize the property's use, the parcel needed to be sub-divided, and infrastructure such as access roads and sewer lines was needed. Serenity House and Habitat partnered with the local housing authority and the City of Port Angeles to submit an application to the state for Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) money. The funding was approved, allowing the original land to be sub-divided into 15 lots. Habitat used 14 lots for single-family homeownership projects, and the other lot was donated to Serenity House to be used for Maloney Heights. Additional money for the development of Maloney Heights came from the state's Housing Trust Fund, grants from foundations and money raised by Serenity House.

Having secured revenue for the project's capital costs, Serenity House used a variety of sources to meet their operating costs. Thanks to the support of the city, the flexibility of the local housing authority and collaboration with county and state officials, Serenity House avoided over-reliance on any single revenue stream. In addition to supporting the CDBG application, the city's backing encouraged the state to provide McKinney-Vento Supportive Housing Program dollars and Tenant-based Rental Assistance. Additionally, city support was helpful for obtaining money from the Supportive Services for Veteran Families program for the development.

Along with the city's support, the local housing authority is providing on-going support to Maloney Heights with project-based Section 8 vouchers and anticipates using HUD-VASH vouchers in the future. To provide money for the project's staffing needs, Clallum County directed money from its Veterans Relief Fund (VRF). The VRF is a state-mandated and county-managed source of revenue from property tax receipts used to assist low-income veterans and their families.

To further support the development, the city waived the requirement that all new residential units have two parking spaces. The city agreed to allow the project to have only 12 parking spaces rather than the 56 that are usually required. Finally, during development, Serenity House fitted the Maloney Heights structure with the ability to have solar panels installed. Recognizing the potential to support this design feature, the city connected Serenity House with another non-profit organization interested in promoting sustainable building practices. The upfront costs of the solar panels were covered by a state grant, allowing the accrued cost savings to be used as an on-going source of operating revenue. This connection by the city made Maloney Heights the first development serving homeless in Washington State to use residential solar panels.

Housing and homelessness leaders have also realized the importance of having a presence during discussions about broader community issues such as access to public transportation, health care, food and utility assistance, education, employment training, and prisoner release. To help facilitate cross-jurisdictional cooperation, Clallum County officials held their first regional forum in October 2011 with community planners and housing and health care representatives from neighboring Jefferson County, another large and rural area. Local tribal leaders from Native American communities were also engaged and the event drew nearly 100 local elected leaders to discuss shared needs and potential areas of partnership.

To complement increased levels of collaboration, Clallum County has also used technology to overcome geographic challenges. In 2011, the Washington state Department of Health and Human Services established an online portal to benefit applications and services called Washington Connections. To increase access to community-based services and assistance, Clallum Connections was created and linked into Washington Connections. To provide accessibility to people who do not have personal internet access, these web-based service connections are available at the county’s three Housing Resource Centers and all public libraries. Other jurisdictions, both rural and non-rural, have also begun using web-based portals to increase access to services. In 43 counties and cities in CA, CO, MD, TX and WA, Networks of Care, exist in an effort to better serve veterans, service members and their families.

“One of the key lessons we’ve learned in working with homeless veterans in remote areas, is that the best way we can honor these men and women is by serving them where they are, not where we think they should be,” said Cheri Fleck with West End Outreach Services which serves Clallum and Jefferson county. “In the past, we expected veterans to come for services that were located at a VA medical center or community outreach center that in some cases were hours away from people. When we began reversing that process, we saw that we could gradually build trust with some veterans who have intentionally lived away from the places where services are located for years.”

In an era of tight budgets, America’s veterans are beginning to return home after more than 10 years of war. In addition, there are many veterans among the nearly 11,500 people who turn 65 every day. In rural areas, rugged terrain and vast distances complicate the already challenging process of housing veterans. While the lessons from Clallum County were gained as a result of their work serving homeless veterans, they can also be applied to efforts to better serve veterans with or without disabilities who have housing. Understanding the need, identifying service gaps and overlaps, coordinating communication between various stakeholders, using technology as possible and recognizing the need to deliver services to veterans rather than exclusively working to bring veterans to services are tangible steps that can help ensure that all veterans in rural communities have safe, accessible and affordable places to call home.

This is an amended article that initially ran as a part of Rural Voices, a quarterly publication of the Housing Assistance Council. To read the original article and the entire edition of Rural Voices, visit www.ruralhome.org.