Bring Them Home

Innovative, community-based programs aimed at ending homelessness among veterans are not only meeting, but exceeding their goals. Their recipe for success: a ‘housing first’ strategy that prioritizes access to shelter over access to services, proactive efforts to identify those in the most urgent need, and a holistic, human approach. But America still has 50,000 homeless vets, and work to do.

Wearing military pants and a black NBA T-shirt, the muscular middle-aged man is sleeping on the sidewalk under a freeway bridge in the bustling Westwood neighborhood of Los Angeles. It’s the morning after Fourth of July and he looks tired.

“Help a man have a better life” reads a cardboard sign next to him, not far from a wheelchair and a telltale medical marijuana container. A gust of wind flips the sign over, revealing a more pointed plea: “Help—I need a tent.”

The man, who identifies himself only as Jim, is known to locals as part of a group of homeless military veterans who have long taken refuge under a section of the 405 Freeway near the regional office of the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs, popularly known as “the VA.”

Homeless veteran
Veteran at home

As Jim tells it, he has been living on the streets for the past four years after serving in the U.S. Navy’s Pacific Fleet for 20 years. He is what advocates for the homeless refer to as “chronically homeless”—typically defined as someone with a disabling condition who has been continuously homeless for at least a year, or has been homeless four or more times in the past three years.

Unlike some of the other down-and-out veterans under the noisy bridge, Jim has not applied for housing with the federal government. An aversion to bureaucracy—typical among veterans—is one reason, he admits. Despair is another. As he puts it, alluding to his ill health: “I probably won’t be here too long to get housing.”

Shelter is a basic human need. Yet perhaps no section of American society is more starkly—and poignantly—bereft of it than military veterans.

A single statistic from a 2009 report to Congress by the VA and the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) provides chilling proof: 75,609 veterans were homeless on a single night in January 2009—nearly half of them in California, Florida, New York and Texas. Coming at the height of the Wall Street-triggered financial collapse and the U.S. military’s drawing down of troops in Iraq, the report noted that veterans experiencing poverty were twice as likely to become homeless, compared with poor adults in the nonveteran population.

The crisis prompted the VA to make a big push to remedy homelessness among veterans. In November 2009, the VA’s secretary at the time, former U.S. Army General Eric Shinseki, unveiled an ambitious five-year plan to end homelessness among veterans by the end of 2015. In cooperation with a host of government agencies, the VA plan was to “attack the entire downward spiral that ends in homelessness,” Shinseki said, adding that it’s imperative for the VA to offer veterans education, jobs and safe housing.

Endorsed by the White House, the VA’s objective has won the nationwide support of 709 leaders who signed up for the Mayors Challenge to End Homelessness. The initiative’s signatories so far include 558 mayors, eight state governors and 151 county and city officials.

In 2012, HUD announced a 17 percent drop in homelessness among veterans since 2009. The achievement was largely attributed to the use of innovative “boot camps” that shortened the time it typically takes to find housing for veterans and the chronically homeless, while focusing on those who had the most urgent need to be housed.

Among the first organizations to employ that strategy is Community Solutions, a New York City-based nonprofit that launched a “100,000 Homes Campaign” in 186 communities, in partnership with the VA and HUD. The campaign, which kicked off in 2010, required participating communities to house 100,000 chronically homeless and medically vulnerable Americans over four years, according to Adam Gibbs, media coordinator for Community Solutions. By July 2014, Gibbs says, Community Solutions had not only achieved its goal but exceeded it: A little more than 105,000 homeless people—about 30 percent of them veterans—had been successfully housed, mainly in California, Florida and Texas.

How Community Solutions carried out its mission is at once a marvel of humanitarianism and management efficiency. “We trained people working in the homeless services sector to improve their housing placement system so that they could rapidly connect people experiencing homelessness with housing,” explains Gibbs. Campaign staff, he adds, organized numerous boot camps facilitated by Rapid Results Institute, a Connecticut-based organization that specializes in 100-day community projects aimed at meeting specific goals.

Key to successful community-based efforts to house homeless vets is the involvement of a case worker or “housing navigator”—someone who serves as a primary point of contact with an individual or family as they work their way through the system. The need for such intermediaries became clear when the 100,000 Homes Campaign team in Atlanta discovered that one veteran underwent a 144-day ordeal before he received housing. About half that time, Gibbs says, was wasted on tracking certain kinds of identification that weren’t even required.

Increased coordination among team members was another factor in the program’s success, Gibbs says. Besides conducting weekly conference calls during which they discussed bright spots and best practices, team members briefed their federal partners on a monthly basis.

Getting to know the homeless by directly engaging with them was another of the program’s major strengths. This aspect, typically lacking in the VA’s outreach efforts, cannot be overemphasized. (As Joseph Costello, a retired veteran who runs a mobile VA clinic in San Diego, puts it: “If we give somebody dignity—offer them a shower, shake their hand and give them a hug—they will feel that the system is really interested in them and they will respond.”)

And so, in addition to counting the homeless anonymously, as the federal government requires every year or two, the nonprofit worked with communities to create and maintain by-name registries of the homeless population. “By learning names, documenting stories and understanding the most urgent needs of their homeless neighbors, community members [took] a critical step toward moving people off the streets and into housing,” explains Gibb.

One highly effective solution to ending homelessness is “housing first.” The strategy revolves around providing permanent housing to the homeless right away, followed by support services if necessary. The logic behind the practice, says Gibbs, is that “stable housing puts people in a better position to benefit voluntarily from services.”

Following the success of the 100,000 Homes Campaign, a study commissioned by Community Solutions found that taxpayers save an average of $13,000 per year per person housed—the result of reduced costs in emergency health care and incarceration.

According to 2014 federal estimates, there are currently some 50,000 homeless veterans and 85,000 chronically homeless individuals nationwide. To reduce those numbers, Community Solutions is now engaged in a follow-on initiative aimed at helping 75 communities end veteran homelessness by the end of 2015 and chronic homelessness by December 31, 2016.

Called “Zero: 2016,” the program is designed to reach “functional zero”—the tipping point at which a community proves its capacity, month after month, to house more people than are currently experiencing homelessness. Instead of 100-day boot camps, however, the initiative revolves around two-day crash courses for homelessness advocates in methodology, best practices and quality improvement aimed at improving housing for the homeless.

Another data-driven success story in which communities played a key role in rapidly reducing homelessness recently unfolded in Virginia. Home to about 800,000 veterans, Virginia has one of the fastest-growing populations of ex-military personnel in the nation, according to Matt Leslie, the state’s director of Housing Development for Veterans.

In 2014, says Leslie, Virginia’s government resolved to house 360 of the 620 homeless vets in the state within 100 days. It was the first time the government had launched such an initiative. “Historically, if a veteran was going to be housed, he had to show up at the VA,” says Leslie. “The challenge was that a veteran who had been homeless for a long time was not going to show up at the VA because veterans either tend to go to the VA for everything or they go to the VA for nothing.”

The state government “essentially convinced the VA to include communities in the way funds for veterans are used,” explains Leslie. Teams of workers then developed a by-name list focused on the most vulnerable veterans—the aging, the sick, and those who potentially had mental health needs. With the government’s help, community participants set up a database of landlords that, along with databases on health, employment, counseling and other services, was aimed at “matching the right resources to the right veteran,” says Leslie.

Virginia’s government tapped the Virginia Coalition to End Homelessness, a statewide nonprofit organization, to provide logistical support for the initiative. “They had all the relationships with the homeless providers and we had the relationships with the VA and veteran providers,” says Leslie, adding: “So between the two of us we covered all the bases.”

Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe played a vital role in the plan’s success. He set aside $1 million for veterans’ housing in the state’s 2014 budget. His biggest contribution, however, wasn’t monetary. “With the governor’s leadership, we had a voice,” says Leslie. “Once he signed up to the [mayors] challenge, no community provider wanted to be left out.”

As a result, Virginia not only vastly exceeded its goal—462 vets rather than 360 were housed in 100 days—but from October 2014 to May 2015 the state housed about 800 veterans, many of whom had been homeless for 20-25 years, says Leslie. “We’re getting better at identifying homeless veterans, so we anticipate more of them coming into the system,” he adds.

Connecting veterans to job resources, training and gainful employment is another critical issue across the nation. In Los Angeles County, which has the highest number of homeless veterans as well as unemployed veterans in the U.S., the challenge is being met headlong.

On July 14, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti convened a “10,000 Strong Veterans Career Summit” aimed at employing 10,000 veterans over a three-year period. The program consists of a coalition of more than 200 public and private sector partners who have already hired nearly 5,000 veterans since July 2014, according to the mayor’s office.

At the summit, which included onsite resumé assistance workshops as well as advice for veterans on how to find housing, Garcetti was joined by more than 1,000 veterans and their supporters as well as employers and military family members. Among other things, the mayor announced a goal of hiring 10 percent of veterans in all-new apprenticeships in the construction and building trades. The initiative is expected to result in more than 500 jobs for veterans annually.

“We have a duty to repay the services of our returning heroes with job opportunities,” Garcetti said at a media conference during the all-day summit. “We owe them the help they deserve to transition their valuable skills to support their families and benefit our local employers.”