Regional Forums Begin as HUD and NLC sign Memorandum of Understanding

The Mayors Challenge to End Veteran Homelessness presents a rare opportunity for local officials to lead the way across the finish line on a community issue once thought intractable.

HUD-Meeting-PhillyA regional forum in Philadelphia supporting the Mayors Challenge to End Veteran Homelessness. (Photo Credit: HUD)

This week in Philadelphia, mayors, city representatives, non-profit leaders, federal and state officials gathered as part of the second regional forum supporting the Mayors Challenge to End Veteran Homelessness.

The first forum was held two weeks ago in Austin before the start of NLC’s annual conference, the Congress of Cities and Exposition. During the conference, NLC and HUD signed a formal Memorandum of Understanding to develop more regional forums across the country.

As part of the regional forums, local elected officials are not only encouraged to join the challenge, but are provided more information about the available resources in communities and who are the local contacts. In addition, participants share with one another how they have made progress toward ending veteran homelessness.

During this week’s forum, participants heard from representatives about success in Philadelphia and Binghamton, New York. In Binghamton, Mayor Richard David and the city commission pledged their commitment to end veteran homelessness at an event on September 5, 2014.

After making his commitment, Mayor David reached out to local veterans, homelessness advocates, community leaders, service providers and state and federal officials. Collectively, the group identified veterans in need and the available resources in the community.

As of November 12, 21 veterans had been housed and that night, there were no veterans sleeping on the streets of Binghamton.

During the Austin forum, participants heard about specific actions taken by the city in Salt Lake City, New Orleans and Houston.

In Salt Lake City, officials worked with county and state leaders to ensure program administrators using CDBG resources only needed to file one report to meet federal reporting requirements rather than multiple reports for local, county and/or state CDBG dollars.

Additionally, Mayor Becker has engaged local landlords to provide apartments for veterans who have been matched with supportive services and housing resources. Similarly, in New Orleans, Mayor Landrieu worked with local realtors and property management companies to recruit landlords to join city efforts.

Houston’s Special Assistant to the Mayor for Homeless Initiatives spoke about the importance of creating a “yes” culture. “We have learned that it is not enough to simply have a drop-in center or VASH or SSVF or even coordinated assessment; we must have a “yes” culture,” said Mandy Chapman-Semple. “We operate with the understanding that there is a housing option for every homeless veteran and that it is our duty to offer those choices and deliver.”

Another key element of the regional forums is developing an understanding of what the end of veteran homelessness looks like. While veterans will continue to experience housing instability due to economic, medical or personal circumstances, representatives from the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness and HUD discussed the end of veteran homelessness meaning that any episode of homelessness is brief, rare and non-recurring.

In Philadelphia, stakeholders believe they will reach this point, called “functional zero,” by fall of 2015. This achievement was first made in Phoenix and Salt Lake City among chronically homeless veterans in the last year.

As part of Congress of Cities, Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton, joined a panel with the President of Denver’s City Council, Chris Herndon and representatives from The Home Depot Foundation, Community Solutions and the American Legion. The panel discussed how an initial focus on ending homelessness among veterans can better position cities to improve the community for everyone.

Mayor Stanton and Councilman Herndon talked about the opportunity their communities have found to tie together supportive services related to employment, education and healthcare after veterans are stably housed.

Mayor Stanton specifically discussed how his community is now beginning to move the successes they’ve learned around chronically homeless veterans to non-chronically homeless veterans and all chronically homeless individuals and families.

Stanton-SessionPhoenix Mayor Greg Stanton speaking during a panel session at the Congress of Cities in Austin.

With a 33% decline in veteran homelessness since 2010, including a 40% decline among unsheltered homeless veterans, cities across the country are proving that homelessness can end.

In 391 days, we reach the federal goal date when we have aimed to end veteran homelessness. The Mayors Challenge to End Veteran Homelessness presents a rare opportunity for local officials to lead the way across the finish line on a community issue once thought intractable. Regional forums developed by NLC and HUD will continue to help city leaders identify specific actions they can take to ensure all veterans have a safe place to call home.

For specific questions and actions you can take in your city, see Three Steps & Five Questions.

NLC and HUD are actively developing future regional forums. If you are interested in learning about or having a regional forum in or near your community, contact Elisha Harig-Blaine at harig-blaine@nlc.org.

 Elisha_blogAbout the Author: Elisha Harig-Blaine is the Principal Associate for Housing (Veterans and Special Needs) at NLC. Follow Elisha on Twitter at @HarigBlaine.

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.

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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.

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Information compiled by:
NCH

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.

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About the Author: Elisha Harig-Blaine is the Principal Associate for Housing (Veterans and Special Needs) at NLC. Follow Elisha on Twitter at @HarigBlaine.

60 Minutes Profiles Nashville, while Dallas Convenes Landlords to Bring Veterans Home

Last night on 60 Minutes, the 100,000 Homes Campaign was profiled for their work with cities and other stakeholders across the country to change how we address homelessness. While Nashville was highlighted in the segment, other communities, such as Dallas, are also taking bold steps to bring together the necessary partners to ensure veterans and the chronically homeless have a place to call home.

In Nashville, the city provides the staff and capacity support for the How’s Nashville campaign. The campaign has brought the city together with the area housing authority, private landlords, the VA, and other service providers to prioritize people for housing based on how likely they are to die on the street. To accomplish this goal, housing units are paired with homeless individuals using resources such as Housing Choice Vouchers and HUD-VASH vouchers. The commitment of vouchers has been paired with philanthropic contributions of reduced rent apartments by private landlords. The need for partnerships with private landlords has been recognized as a key to success among stakeholders in Dallas as well.

Recently in Dallas, Assistant City Manager Theresa O’Donnell joined representatives from the Mission Dallas-Fort Worth (DFW) Team, including officials from the Dallas Housing Authority and the regional VA and HUD offices for a landlord forum. Dozens of landlords attended the event to learn more about community efforts to end veteran homelessness and the need for landlords who are willing to accept veteran-specific (HUD-VASH) housing vouchers.

Assistant City Manager O’Donnell speaks with landlords and property managers at a forum about efforts to bring veterans home.

In April 2013, stakeholders from across the Dallas community came together at a homeless veteran boot-camp facilitated by the 100,000 Homes Campaign. During the 100 days following the boot camp, the team housed 130 homeless veterans. Since the boot-camp, a total of 515 veterans have been housed, with 62 percent being chronically homeless. This progress built upon a 25.9 percent drop in the number of homeless veterans in Dallas between 2011 and 2012. The 2013 Point-in-Time Count showed only 303 homeless veterans. With the 2014 Point-in-Time count recently conducted, the community will soon have more recent data to direct their efforts.

During the initial 100 days, team members worked with NLC and recognized that an obstacle to continued progress was a lack of landlords willing to accept HUD-VASH vouchers. To overcome this obstacle, NLC helped initiate discussions between the city and the team. With the support of team members and the city, NLC drafted a letter, which was signed by Mayor Mike Rawlings and sent to landlords and property managers already working with the city through other housing programs.

To further draw attention to the work and success of the team, Mayor Rawlings also recorded a public service announcement congratulating the team. The mayor used the PSA to urge the public to support the team’s efforts with donations to help with expenses not covered by programs serving veterans. In Nashville, these expenses have also been met by private contributions, but recently the city’s CDBG administrator also announced their commitment of up to $200,000 to help with costs such as rental deposits or utility fees.

With continued focus, both Dallas and Nashville are on pace to join Phoenix and Salt Lake City as a city that have ended chronic veteran homelessness. As each city reviewed their challenges and successes, the need for improving engagement with landlords was identified as a recurring need to help veterans and the chronically homeless find a home more quickly. Combined with an on-going use of data to drive decision-making, Dallas and Nashville are important illustrations of the success that is possible when local collaboration is joined with city leadership

Learn more here about the Mission DFW team.

To learn how you can best support efforts to end veteran homelessness in your city, contact me at harig-blaine@nlc.org.

Elisha_blog
About the Author: Elisha Harig-Blaine is a Principal Associate for Housing (Veterans and Special Needs) at NLC. Follow Elisha on Twitter at @HarigBlaine.

What does the end of chronic veteran homelessness mean for cities?

Last month, Phoenix made the historic announcement that all of their chronically homeless veterans were off the streets. This amazing milestone is the result of collaboration between all parts of the community and the use of data to drive decisions and allocate resources. The accomplishment has sparked a national conversation about whether or not a city can end homelessness.

The success Phoenix has seen around chronically homeless veterans can serve as an example for other segments of the homeless population. As Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton said while making his announcement last month, “The strategies that we’re using to end chronic homelessness among veterans are the exact same strategies that we’re going to use to end chronic homelessness among the broader population. This model – doing right by our veterans – is exactly how we’re going to do right by the larger population.”

The progress made in Phoenix does not mean that there are no more homeless in the city, or even that there are no more homeless veterans. Rather, it means that Phoenix has developed the necessary community structures or “social capital” to effectively and efficiently use resources to ensure persistently homeless veterans are no longer on the street. The development of these community structures can be built upon so that all chronically homeless veterans have a permanent home and are not simply off the street and in a shelter or transitional home.

People will always have unfortunate and tragic occurrences that push them over the edge from poverty into homelessness. However, as research has shown, it is difficult to determine why, for example, “John” becomes homeless while “Adam” does not, despite both being poor and facing similar situations.

People such as John will still need a safe place for a short period of time, like a shelter or transitional home. However, in communities with the proper coordination and the necessary resources, John will no longer become trapped in the cycle between shelter, transitional housing, and the streets. Instead, programs that can help rapidly re-house the homeless will be connected to emergency shelter locations and the service providers who administer other assistance programs. This network of collaborating housing providers can coordinate with healthcare providers, employment placement and training programs, educational opportunities, and more.

When done all at once, this process is so multi-faceted that it can become overwhelming. But what cities like Phoenix are showing is that progress can happen by initially focusing on a very specific subset of the homeless population, such as chronically homeless veterans. That progress is measurable. It saves lives and it saves money. This process has been described by Albuquerque Mayor Richard Berry as “the smart way to do the right thing.”

An argument can be made that poverty will always exist. But chronic street homelessness is more than just poverty. It is a combination of personal tragedy, societal failures, individual choices, and institutional shortcomings. The successes happening in Phoenix, Salt Lake, Philadelphia, Houston, Albuquerque, and other cities gives hope to the idea that chronic homelessness no longer needs to be seen as a permanent fixture of urban life.

Elisha_blog
About the Author: Elisha Harig-Blaine is a Principal Associate for Housing (Veterans and Special Needs) at NLC. Follow Elisha on Twitter at @HarigBlaine.

HUD Secretary Donovan: “Communities are assets to be built on”

Recently in Atlanta, federal, state, and local officials joined advocates and local practitioners to discuss solutions to housing issues facing communities across the country. During the event, Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Shaun Donovan spoke about the Administration’s recognition that housing is one of the primary pillars needed to help grow the middle class. Secretary Donovan noted, “communities are not places with problems to be solved, but assets to be built on.”

In outlining the vision of a “new federalism,” the Secretary noted that the federal government needed to again become a strong partner with local stakeholders. Donovan outlined several examples of this partnership such as the Sustainable Communities Initiative and the Rental Assistance Demonstration. In addition, a renewed relationship between federal agencies and local partners is shown in the growing progress being made toward ending chronic veteran homelessness.

In the coming months, either Salt Lake City or Phoenix will become the first city in the nation to end chronic veteran homelessness. This unprecedented accomplishment is on the cusp of reality because of a focused and sustained commitment by both federal and local government officials, as well as non-governmental stakeholders in these communities.

At the federal level, since 2008, over 48,000 housing vouchers specifically designated for veterans have been distributed to communities in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico. Unlike traditional Housing Choice Vouchers (aka Section 8), HUD-VASH vouchers have additional support from VA case workers. As a result, both veterans and landlords have a resource should issues arise.

Also in 2008, the VA was authorized to begin the Supportive Services for Veteran Families (SSVF) program. SSVF’s goal is to promote housing stability among very low-income veterans and their families who reside in or are transitioning to permanent housing. In FY13, the SSVF program provided nearly $300 million to 319 organizations to serve approximately 120,000 veteran households.

In 2010, the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness (USICH) released Opening Doors, a comprehensive plan to prevent and end homelessness, with the specific goal of ending chronic veteran homelessness by 2015. Ongoing support from Congress and the Administration for the HUD-VASH and SSVF programs, combined with improved implementation at the local level, has led to a 17% decline in veteran homelessness since the release of Opening Doors.

In Phoenix, these federal resources have been maximized by local stakeholders, including the city. To help reduce the amount of time between when a veteran is awarded a voucher and when they move in to a unit, the two city departments that are required to conduct housing inspections collaborated to allow for one inspection to occur that met both agencies’ requirements. In addition, the city has supported a locally developed innovation called a navigator with funds from their Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) and Emergency Solutions Grant programs. The navigators provide peer support to chronically homeless veterans by walking them step-by-step through the process and providing assistance when necessary to make certain they obtain and sustain housing.

In Salt Lake City, stakeholders recognized they were starting their efforts to end veteran homelessness with imperfect data. To overcome this, partners began regular meetings to identify the veterans in need, come to agreement about what people should be prioritized, and determine what resources were available in the community to meet those needs.

In addition to these steps, city, county, and state officials worked to create a uniform reporting process for organizations using federal Emergency Shelter Grant resources. These resources were primarily being used to fund rapid re-housing efforts, and the uniform reporting reduced administrative time and costs associated with their use. As a result, since February 2013, Salt Lake City has been placing the homeless into housing at a rate that puts the city on a path to end veteran and chronic homelessness in the coming months.

Finally, in Tacoma, WA, community stakeholders have come together to form a Veterans Housing Options Group. The group consists of the WA State Department of Veterans Affairs, the two local agencies administering SSVF, and representatives from the regional VA office. The work to improve how services are delivered to homeless veterans is being complemented by the city, which has encouraged the WA State Housing Finance Commission to consider including a veteran preference when determining how federal Low Income Housing Tax Credits are distributed. In addition, the city is considering actions that would benefit homeless veterans, including inclusionary zoning requirements and voluntary housing development incentives, among others.

In an environment of limited fiscal resources, Secretary Donovan is correct when he acknowledges that cities are where innovations are born and progress is made. But these innovations cannot happen when there is persistent uncertainty about the level of federal resources and where those resources will be directed. Increasing partnerships between the federal government and municipal officials is a common sense notion that requires sustained support in order to see results. In their own ways, these cities are illustrating how progress on an issue can be made when local governments have focused and committed partners at the federal level.

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About the Author: Elisha Harig-Blaine is a Senior Associate for Housing (Veterans and Special Needs) at NLC. Follow Elisha on Twitter at @HarigBlaine.

Why Did President Obama Choose Phoenix to Talk About Housing? It Might Not Be Why You Think.

Recently, President Obama gave a speech in Phoenix, AZ about housing and homeownership. In much of his speech, the President discussed his Administration’s principals for reform of the housing finance system, as well as the on-going rebound in home prices. While the city is cited as an example of the housing boom, bust, and recovery cycle – the choice of Phoenix to deliver the speech was significant for another reason. Thanks to local leadership, collaboration, and resource coordination, Phoenix is on track to end chronic homelessness among veterans in 2014.

We’ll wade into the debate around potential reforms of the mortgage finance system at another time. But the on-going rebound in prices should not be mindlessly celebrated. While rising home values are no doubt good, the pace of the price increases is causing concern by some market observers. The heavy involvement of large investors paying cash for many homes is likely driving some of the increases. The question is, how much of the increases are being driven by all cash home purchases?

How much can local leaders influence these aspects of the housing market? Similarly, are there actions that local leaders can take to significantly impact the debate around mortgage finance reform?

This past February, NLC convened stakeholders in Phoenix to identify public leadership roles necessary to build more sustainable and resilient communities, particularly in the face of cyclical volatility in the real estate and housing markets. While local leaders can take steps to create an environment that attracts and retains individuals and families, there are limited actions local leaders can take to prevent the rise of home values based on market speculation. Furthermore, there are few things officials can do locally around reforming the mortgage finance system.

However, when dealing with veteran homelessness, local leaders can play a large role. In Phoenix, Mayor Greg Stanton has taken numerous steps that merit his recognition by the President. As documented in a recent NLC case study, the City of Phoenix has supported the efforts to end veteran homelessness with resources to fund “navigator” positions to walk homeless individuals through the confusing process of getting help and housing. These navigator positions work to ensure that homeless veterans get the help they need to obtain housing.

With a navigator assisting a homeless veteran, stakeholders can be sure that the limited numbers of housing vouchers are used for those with the most intensive needs. If a veteran needs help getting into housing, the navigator can help make sure the veteran receives rapid re-housing assistance. This targeting of resources has allowed the City of Phoenix to reduce the number of chronically homeless veterans from 222 in March 2012 to 156 in March 2013. An additional 50 housing vouchers specifically targeting homeless veterans have since been used, leaving an estimated 105 chronically homeless veterans in Phoenix.

As the City turns a corner in its efforts to reduce chronic veteran homeless, Mayor Stanton is also focusing on veteran employment with the assistance of the Military Veterans Commission, a board of local leaders in the veteran community that advises the Phoenix City Council.

The Hire, Educate, Recruit and Organize (HERO) Initiative has successfully connected local small businesses and corporate employers with veterans at strategically planned hiring events. The HERO initiative takes a targeted approach in reaching out to employers in industries in which military experience provides highly transferrable skills, such as logistics and advanced business services. The employers are pre-screened to ensure they are actively hiring, able to pay a minimum of $12/hour, and willing to interview on-site. The employers also receive educational training that highlights veterans’ assets, and demystifies common misconceptions associated with hiring veterans. Veteran participants receive pre-session interview and resume assistance to translate their military experience to a civilian audience. At the first HERO event in December 2012, 30 employers and 170 veterans attended, and 20 job offers were extended as a result of the event. This initiative began as a pilot program by the mayor’s office, and has now become a permanent fixture in the city’s economic development landscape.

President Obama rightfully drew the nation’s attention to Phoenix. As possibly the first city in the nation to end any form of homelessness, their work must be celebrated. The fact that the population which would no longer experience homelessness are veterans should be a call to action to leaders across the country.

One Month After Memorial Day: What Has Happened In Your City to Support Veterans?

About a month ago, many of us were making final plans for the unofficial start of summer. Memorial Day is a day to reflect and honor the men and women who have paid the ultimate sacrifice for our country. Flags are hung, we bow our heads in remembrance, and in our own ways we say thank you. But our veterans deserve more than thanks. They deserve action.

At the National Press Club last week, former Sen. Richard Lugar (R-IN) was joined on a panel by Dr. Jonathan Sherin of Volunteers of America, Kelly Caffarelli of The Home Depot Foundation, and Kobe Langley of the Corporation for National and Community Service for a forum titled: After the Uniform 2013: Facing the Invisible Wounds of War. Moderated by Fox News anchor Chris Wallace, the panel discussed the implications of wounds such as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI), and sexual trauma on the stability and reintegration of veterans in communities.

The panel discussed the effect of having less than 1 percent of Americans serve in Iraq or Afghanistan. All of the panelists spoke about the varying impacts multiple deployments have had on these men, women, and their families. Their needs can be deep, complex, and have consequences that ripple through our communities in ways that we may not easily see.

Whether the needs relate to housing, employment, mental health, education, healthcare, or child care, the panel acknowledged that community-based solutions are the most effective way to address these needs. Top down solutions are unable to adapt to local conditions without local leadership. As a result, Senator Lugar pointed out, “Mayors and local leaders must be conveners in communities.”

Local level convenings can yield important insights about resources that are already in communities but may not be being used as effectively as possible. Regular meetings can identify gaps in service and help identify specific needs. Once specific needs are identified, the visibility of local leadership can help bring missing stakeholders to the table, who can help address these needs.

This is already happening in many cities both large and small. In a new case study published this week, we highlight work happening in Washington, D.C. Through the city’s Department of Veterans Affairs, city officials and the overall community is kept informed of veterans’ issues and the range of services available. By establishing partnerships with area stakeholders and committing to providing housing and supportive services, D.C. has seen a 29 percent decrease in veteran homelessness over the last four years.

One example of local coordination heightened as a result of regular stakeholder meetings is D.C.’s furniture give-away program. Starting in 2011, the city has partnered with various local government and community organizations to coordinate a volunteer-driven system to provide furnishings free of charge to veterans moving into new homes. The city offered a no-lease warehouse donated by the D.C. Department of General Services, and have worked with local military bases and private organizations to acquire excess furniture estimated to be worth more than $700,000. The local teamsters union provides volunteer drivers and a vehicle to transport the furnishings to veterans in need on a weekly basis. To date, over 160 veterans received furnishings from the program.

A similar effort is underway in central Texas. As a part of the 100,000 Homes Campaign, the regional VA office is working with the Central Texas Council of Governments, area non-profits, local housing authorities, and local leaders. Like stakeholders in Washington, D.C., the central Texas team has identified that a storage space for donated furniture and transportation is one of their needs. The team has engaged with city officials from Belton, TX, who are currently in the process of seeing what resources either the city or private partners in the area may be able to offer to meet these needs.

We are only now beginning to understand the true impacts of invisible wounds. With an estimated 22 veterans committing suicide each day, deaths by suicide exceeding combat related deaths in 2012, and an on-going backlog of VA benefit claims, veterans issues are clearly a national emergency. But this national emergency is also a local opportunity.

The opportunity is the chance to improve service coordination in your community that will help not only veterans, but other special needs populations such as the elderly and disabled. In addition, as veterans are reintegrated into their communities, they will bring the financial benefits they have earned into the local economy. Furthermore, these men and women have characteristics that many employer are looking for, such as discipline and an ethic of team work and service.

As communities begin to understand what works, this knowledge can be syndicated nationally. There will not be a solution to every problem, but we cannot let the desire for perfection obstruct the path to improvement.

Learn from other examples of what cities are doing to serve veterans at www.nlc.org/veteranshousing and contact me at harig-blaine@nlc.org to learn how NLC can support efforts in your community.

The VA Claims Backlog: Yes, It’s An Outrage, But What Can Cities Do? Plenty.

In the past several weeks, there have been an increasing number of reports by the federal government (here and here) and in the media (see other stories here and here) about the travesty our veterans are facing as they wait–at times for years–to receive the benefits to which they are entitled.

There is no doubt this is a national disgrace. Combined with the fact that in 2012 there were an estimated 62,619 homeless veterans in our country, these are serious contradictions of our national priorities.

The Secretary of the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs, Eric Shinsecki has recently committed to reducing the egregious backlog of VA benefit claims to 125 days or less by 2015. But for the veteran with a complex benefit claim today, who may be currently unemployed or underemployed, with an increasingly precarious housing situation that threatens to put his or her family’s stability at risk, the promise that the VA will get to their claim sometime in the next approximately 650 days is hardly reassuring.

While it is easy to point the blame at federal “incompetence” and/or lack of planning, these assertions, regardless of their merit, do nothing to address the current challenges of those who have served their country. It is of course imperative that we hold our federal delegations and the administration accountable for their actions (or lack thereof) to address the current state of affairs, but the question still remains, what can be done for our veterans now?

As the frequently cited quote from former Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill goes, “All politics is local.” In this situation, the solutions to many of the challenges facing our veterans must also be local.

More and more communities are stepping forward to improve the coordination of services for our veterans, convening local stakeholders to identify pragmatic steps that can be taken and tapping into local assets as effectively as possible.

In Phoenix, Ariz., stakeholders from the VA, non-profits, state and local government agencies have come together to coordinate their intake processes in a manner that allows them to quickly identify members of the homeless population who are most likely to die on the streets, and in the process consume the most public resources. In addition, the Arizona Department of Housing has included a set-aside for the homeless, some of whom are veterans, in the distribution of Low-Income Housing Tax Credits.

In Tacoma, Wash., leaders from the City, Pierce County, the VA and non-profits are continuing their work to implement and improve a coordinated intake process that has been in place for the past few years. Given this community’s proximity to Joint Base Lewis-McChord, one of our most active military installations, the commitment and proactive leadership shown by local officials in improving services and opportunities for veterans has been, and will continue to be, instrumental in achieving successful, coordinated outcomes.

Also in Washington State, the City of Auburn’s Mayor and City Council have taken aggressive steps to situate their community as an attractive place for returning veterans to come and build a life. Through partnerships with the local community college, area employers, local offices of the U.S. Department of Labor and U.S. Veterans Affairs, Auburn has recognized their need to take action to not only help returning veterans, but also to tap in to the unique economic development opportunities these men and women present to the city and the region.

Whenever there is a problem, there is never a lack of people willing to yell and throw accusations about how awful something is. But the true testament to measure how much someone actually cares about an issue is how they acknowledge a problem, think carefully about what aspects of the problem they can control, and then act. Officials in Phoenix, Tacoma, Auburn, and other cities are doing just this.

Join them today and tell us what you and your city are doing to ensure our veterans receive the recognition of their service and sacrifices that they deserve.

2013: A Pivotal Year in Ending Veteran Homelessness

The holiday decorations are put away, the resolutions have been made (maybe even broken by now?), and 2013 is underway. This is a critical year in our nation’s efforts to end veteran homelessness. In late 2009 and early 2010, the federal government rolled out their plan to end veteran homelessness by 2015. We are now more than half way through that timeline and if we are to achieve that goal, the involvement of elected officials and municipal staff is critical.

One of the more important actions that officials can take is using their positions to bring attention to what is happening to end homelessness and encouraging the public and private sectors to work together. As part of the annual homeless point-in-time count in Baltimore, Maryland, staff in the Mayor’s Office of Human Services are recruiting other city departments for volunteers, as well as asking for supplies such as pens, clipboards, flashlights, and safety vests. In addition, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake is speaking at a community briefing to generate media coverage and raise awareness about efforts to count the homeless, as well as the ongoing efforts to end homelessness in the city.

To help cities begin each year with a renewed understanding of what they need to do to end homelessness in their area, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) requires communities that receive homeless assistance resources to determine critical baselines of information each January. First, communities much report how many units of housing and shelter space are available for people who are homeless. Second, a community-wide count of the homeless living in shelters as well as those living on the streets is required.

Nationally, this information is compiled and analyzed with the results coming out late in each calendar year. The report on 2012 was released last month and it showed that progress is being made. In a previous blog post, it was noted that homelessness among veterans has dropped 7.2% since January 2011 and by 17.2% since January 2009. This progress is good to see, but it is not enough. At this rate, we will have homeless veterans well beyond 2015.

All communities that receive homeless assistance resources are required to do an annual point-in-time count. However, a growing number of cities, including Baltimore, are integrating innovative strategies into their point-in-time count efforts to ensure that the homeless who are the most likely to die on the streets are the first in line to receive assistance such as housing vouchers. By using a vulnerability index to help prioritize those most in need while also doing their annual point-in-time count, cities are able to more effectively use the limited resources that are available and ensure those resources have the largest human and fiscal impact.

Using the vulnerability index fine-tunes a strategy known as “Housing First.” For years, research and anecdotal evidence has shown the benefits of addressing homelessness through the Housing First model. By placing people directly into housing with supportive services there are fewer homeless as well as larger financial savings. In Albuquerque, New Mexico, Mayor Richard J. Berry has called this strategy “the smart way of doing the right thing.” HUD is so supportive of this innovation that they have featured it in their quarterly publication Evidence Matters.

Back in Baltimore, Gabby Knighton, Outreach Coordinator for Homeless Service Programs says that “incorporating the vulnerability index into our annual point-in-time count is critical. This enables us to identify our chronic and most vulnerable homeless individuals so that we can connect them with permanent housing. By doing this, we are preventing people from dying on the streets and keeping people from rotating through our courts, jails, and emergency rooms, consuming valuable public resources.”

As a city leader, you can do something to help.

Help raise awareness about efforts already underway in your city. Is your city engaged with the 100,000 Homes Campaign and using tools like the vulnerability index? Find out by seeing what cities are engaged, and contact the Campaign to find out how they can help your own city’s work.

We can do this, but it will take more than wishful thinking and good intentions. It requires action.

So add one more item to your list of resolutions. Resolve to make 2013 the year your city made the most progress yet toward ending homelessness.

New Report on Homelessness: The Good, The Bad, and What You Can Do

Last week, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development released their latest national estimate of the number of homeless across the country. While there are several points of good news, there are also sober realities that must be acknowledged.

The Good News

Broadly speaking, in January of this year 633,783 people were homeless. This is virtually unchanged since last year when 636,017 people were homeless. Given the soft economic climate, keeping homelessness from increasing is notable. Even more notable however is the continued decline among veterans and those defined as being chronically homeless. The decline in these two sub-populations of the homeless is a reflection of the ongoing focus on these categories by the federal government and communities since the unveiling of the Opening Doors plan from the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness in 2010.

In the last year, homelessness among veterans declined by 7.2% (4,876 people) and among the chronically homeless there was a 6.8% decline (7,254 people).

Focusing on the national disgrace of homeless veterans should need no explanation.

The focus on the chronic homeless is the result of time-tested and data-driven analysis, which shows the cost savings that result from moving the long-time homeless into housing. When people are stably housed, they are less likely to interact with the police, courts, and emergency responders. The resulting cost-savings to municipalities and states is a compelling fiscal rationale for focusing on eliminating homelessness, particularly during these times of tight budgets.

2010

2011

2012

Total Homeless

649,917

636,017

633,782

Homeless Veterans

76,329

67,495

62,619

Chronically Homeless

109,812

107,148

99,894

The Bad News

When the Opening Doors plan was released in 2010, it set the ambitious goals of ending veteran and chronic homelessness by 2015, and ending homelessness among children, families, and youth by 2020. The Plan presented strategies building upon the lesson that mainstream housing, health, education, and human service programs must be fully engaged and coordinated to prevent and end homelessness.

Unfortunately, it is becoming increasingly clear that despite the consistent declines, unless more communities focus on service coordination, we are unlikely to reach the 2015 goal.

What You Can Do

Ultimately, homelessness as we know it will end once individual communities take the necessary steps to end it among neighbors. So what should cities be doing?

While recognizing the solution to homelessness in a community can be apparent, implementing that solution can be another matter. To help cities overcome these challenges the 100,000 Homes Campaign was formed in an effort to place 100,000 of the most vulnerable homeless into housing.

To help with the local implementation of recognized best practices, the Campaign has partnered with the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, the VA, and HUD to offer Rapid Results Housing Placement Boot Camps. These boot camps bring together community stakeholders such as HUD and VA staffers, outreach teams, service providers, landlords, and housing authority representatives from participating communities to brainstorm and develop local plans for enacting national best practices that will revamp local systems to quickly find housing for homeless individuals.

What are other things that your city can do?

  • Get to know who the homeless are in your city. Knowing someone’s name and how long they have been homeless not only personalizes that individual, but allows a trusting relationship to be built. Those relationships are central to people getting off and staying off the streets.
  • Prioritize the use of vouchers that turn over for veterans and chronically homeless individuals. When a person that has a voucher moves out of the program, what is done with that voucher can vary widely depending on the administrating agency. Working with voucher providers to have turned over vouchers prioritized for use by veterans and the chronically homeless can have a dramatic impact on the number of people living on the street.
  • Create prioritization based on the vulnerability index. When someone lives on the street, the likelihood of them dying is on par with some forms of cancer. Homelessness can cut a person’s lifespan by an average of 25 years. These are stunning facts. In Boston, Dr. Jim O’Connell with Healthcare for the Homeless developed the vulnerability index which uses eight key health indicators to determine which of a city’s homeless are most at risk for dying on the street. To better save lives and dollars, those with the greatest risk of death should be at the front of the line for housing.
  • Align your city’s Ten-Year Plan to End Homelessness with the federal government’s Opening Doors plan. To guide your city’s overall work, it is important for your city’s Ten-Year Plan to End Homelessness to be aligned with the federal government’s Opening Doors plan. Prioritizing resources and ensuring they are well coordinated and focused on identified populations allows cities to take action in a deliberate manner that can be measured and refined to ensure progress is seen.

Read the report and see your area’s progress toward ending homeless. For more information about having a Rapid Results Housing Placement Boot Camp in your city and the 100,000 Homes Campaign, visit http://100khomes.org/.