By Elisha Harig-Blaine
Two or three times each year, our attention turns toward our Veterans and the sacrifices they have made for our country. However, beyond remembering and thanking our Veterans on Memorial Day, the 4th of July, and Veterans Day, focusing on Veterans has proven to be an effective way to create meaningful and lasting change.
As evidence, in the face of homelessness becoming a seemingly intractable public policy issue, overall Veteran homelessness has dropped by 46 percent since 2010, with the number of Veterans on our streets falling by 50 percent. This progress is the result of planning, dedicated resources, collaboration, and local leadership.
In 2010, the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness (USICH) released their plan to end homelessness, Opening Doors. For the first time, Opening Doors outlined a strategic approach to addressing homelessness by prioritizing specified subpopulations, starting with Veterans.
Federal officials recognized that an initial focus on Veterans provided numerous advantages. First, Veterans have unique access to services and benefits such as healthcare, education, and employment that are not available to non-Veterans.
Beyond access to resources, it was understood that the challenge of homelessness would require the support of public and private partners from all levels. Recognizing the “Sea of Goodwill” that existed for Veterans, federal officials began targeting housing resources to homeless Veterans with the HUD-VA Supportive Housing (HUD-VASH) voucher program. The HUD-VASH program is a partnership between the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), with HUD providing a Housing Choice Voucher (a.k.a. Section 8) for Veterans, and VA providing case management services.
In addition to longer-term housing subsidies, like vouchers, VA launched a shorter-term housing subsidy program in 2009, called the Supportive Services for Veteran Families program (SSVF). By 2010, Congress had authorized and appropriated historic levels of funding to support local efforts to end Veteran homelessness.
The focused nature and historic levels of federal support were matched in the private sector. Businesses and philanthropies, joined federal partners to accelerate Veteran hiring and fill remaining gaps in services. For example, The Home Depot Foundation, since 2011 has focused on Veterans and built or improved more than 37,000 homes and veteran facilities in nearly 3,800 cities. Earlier this year, the Foundation announced they had met their commitment of a quarter of a billion dollars for Veteran-related causes two years early.
For the first time since the emergence of modern homelessness, communities had the necessary resources to end Veteran homelessness. The challenge was to develop the systems and sustainable structures needed to effectively and efficiently use those resources.
To support the development of the community-based systems, federal partners funded numerous technical assistance initiatives to provide guidance. These efforts worked with stakeholders to implement known best practices such as the development of by-name lists of homeless Veterans and the use of common assessment tools to prioritize Veterans for assistance based on need.
A final component to the progress on Veteran homelessness has been the active engagement of local elected officials through the Mayors Challenge to End Veteran Homelessness. Led by federal agencies and supported by national organizations, such as the National League of Cities (NLC), the Mayors Challenge is a network of 518 elected officials, including 451 mayors, 62 county and city officials, and five governors who have made a permanent commitment to ensure homelessness is rare, brief, and non-recurring, beginning with Veterans.
Launched in June 2014, the Mayors Challenge has been a mechanism for local elected officials to illustrate their support for ending Veteran homelessness. In addition, the challenge has provided homeless service providers with a platform for engaging public officials around specific actions they can take to help accelerate community efforts to end Veteran homelessness.
Notably, it was not until more than a year after the initiation of the Mayors Challenge that federal officials unveiled the definition of what it means to end Veteran homelessness. (Available at www.usich.gov/resoureces/uploads/asset_library/Vet_Criteria_Benchmarks_V3_February2017.pdf)
The groundswell of support for the goal of ending Veteran homelessness, created by their own prioritization of the Veteran subpopulation, created the necessity that federal officials take this historic step. Since 2015, 62 communities in 32 states, including three entire states have announced the effective end of Veteran homelessness.
In March 2017, the City of Nashua became the 44th community to meet the federally defined criteria and benchmarks for effectively ending Veteran homelessness. This does not mean there are no veteran families experiencing homelessness in the region, but that when identified, the systemic response is built to be accessible, responsive and can quickly house those experiencing homelessness.
In announcing the accomplishment, Mayor Jim Donchess said, “We have a long tradition of service here in Nashua and we take care of our own. Thanks to the efforts of community partners like Harbor Homes, and with the support of federal, state and local resources, we are able to celebrate this achievement. This challenge is a commitment that we have made and we will keep. It requires vigilance and dedication.”
Harbor Homes, Inc. provides low-income, homeless and disabled community members with affordable housing, primary and behavioral health care, employment and job training, and supportive services. Their holistic approach to care has consistently shown better outcomes for clients and the community. As a federally-qualified health center, Harbor Homes not only provides access to healthcare, but they have also developed and manage numerous housing sites to help connect these services to individuals and families, in part with the support of private philanthropies such as The Home Depot Foundation.
Since the announcement, the Nashua region has had an average of one Veteran experiencing homelessness at any given time. In January 2018, their Point in Time Count reflected zero unsheltered homeless Veterans and zero homeless Veterans in emergency shelters. In addition, when a Veteran experiencing homelessness is identified, the community has been able to place them into a permanent housing solution in less than 13 days on average.
With less than eight percent of our nation’s adult population being a Veteran and an increasing number of our military personnel serving multiple overseas tours as part of our nation’s longest period of continuous conflict, supporting Veterans and their families is not only a matter of patriotism, but also a matter of national security.
While the US Department of Veterans Affairs has a large role to play in meeting these needs, they cannot be the only one working to support our Veterans. More and more, communities are seeing the ancillary benefits that come from focusing on Veterans. In the ever-present environment of limited resources, we must illustrate in both words and deeds that we understand the words of President Lincoln and will “care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow, and his orphan.”
Elisha Harig-Blaine is Manager of Veterans and Special Needs with the National League of Cities. Elisha can be reached by phone at 202.626.3005 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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