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.

Momentum Building as White House Celebrates Progress on Veteran Homelessness

Participants of the 100,000 Homes Campaign hear from Dr. Jill Biden during White House event this week.

Participants of the 100,000 Homes Campaign hear from Dr. Jill Biden during White House event this week.

Yesterday, First Lady Michelle Obama spoke at the National Alliance to End Homelessness conference about the growing number of elected officials who have joined the Mayors Challenge to End Homelessness.

“The fact that right now our country has more than 58,000 homeless veterans is a stain on the soul of this nation,” Mrs. Obama said. “It is more important than ever that we redouble our efforts and embrace the most effective strategies to end homelessness among veterans.”

Launched at the White House last month, the Mayors Challenge now includes more than 180 local leaders, as well as support from four Governors.

Earlier in the week, the White House hosted local leaders from across the country to celebrate the success of the 100,000 Homes Campaign. A message from Dr. Jill Biden congratulated communities for housing more than 105,000 of the nation’s most vulnerable homeless, including more than 31,000 veterans.

The events come as cities participating in the Department of Veteran Affairs’ 25 Cities Initiative make significant progress in improving the community systems serving homeless veterans.

Launched in March, the initiative is building on the successes and lessons of the 100,000 Homes Campaign. With technical assistance, cities are developing locally tailored systems to help identify the homeless, prioritize them for service, and place them in available housing that can support them based on their individual needs. In Washington, D.C., community stakeholders have already housed more than 200 individuals using their new system.

In addition to developing these systems, some other lessons of the initiative include:

  • San Francisco: The city is dedicating housing resources for veterans not eligible for VA services. In addition, the city is prioritizing veterans within the Public Housing Authority’s plan.
  • Boston: In announcing his participation in the Mayors Challenge and NLC’s Leadership Network, Mayor Walsh launched www.homesforthebrave.boston.gov, a city hosted website where employers can offer jobs and landlords can offer units for homeless veterans.
  • Seattle: The city’s team has begun looking at how to work with surrounding jurisdictions to identify needed housing due to the high cost of rentals.
  • Baltimore: Obtained a $60,000 commitment from the city to use resources raised from the community to pay for move-in expenses, utility arrears, and other costs needed to place the homeless into new homes.
  • Detroit: The community is using staff from the Projects for Assistance in Transition from Homelessness (PATH) program to guide homeless individuals through the complex process of finding a home and the services they will need to keep it. These staff members are a part of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA).

To help other communities learn about what is happening across the country to end veteran homelessness, NLC hosted a webinar with officials from San Francisco, Salt Lake City, Community Solutions, and The Home Depot Foundation. The webinar outlined four steps and five questions that local leaders can take to end veteran homelessness in their city.

All of these efforts are creating the change needed to end veteran homelessness by the federal goal of 2015, and end chronic homelessness in 2016. Communities are showing that ending veteran homelessness is no longer a dream, but a reality, one city at a time. To support cities, Community Solutions has launched Zero: 2016. Unlike previous efforts, cities must apply to be a part of this effort and have the commitment of key leaders.

To learn more about Zero: 2016 and have your city apply, go to www.zero2016.org.

For more information on NLC’s work visit www.nlc.org/veteranshousing.

 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.

First Lady Urges Leaders to Join Mayors Challenge to End Veteran Homelessness

First Lady Michelle Obama recognizes Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker for his city's efforts to eliminate veteran homelessness.

First Lady Michelle Obama recognizes Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker for his city’s efforts to eliminate veteran homelessness.

Yesterday in the East Room of the White House, First Lady Michelle Obama announced the launch of the Mayors Challenge to End Veteran Homelessness as part of the Joining Forces initiative. Joining the First Lady were mayors from cities across the country, including St. Paul, Salt Lake City, Houston, New Orleans, Jacksonville and Tallahassee.

These local leaders are some of the 77 mayors, four governors and four county officials who have committed to ending veteran homelessness in their communities by the end of 2015.

“When a veteran comes home kissing the ground, it is unacceptable that they should have to sleep on it,” said Mrs. Obama. “The fact that we have more than 58,000 homeless veterans is a moral outrage. We can’t just throw up our hands and say that this problem is too big for us, because the truth is, it’s not.”

The First Lady noted that local officials are leading efforts to end veteran homelessness, “because it’s not just the right thing to do for our veterans, but it’s the right thing to do for their budgets.”

She continued, “Recent studies have shown that just one chronically homeless person can cost communities between $30,000 to $50,000 per year in emergency room visits, medical bills and law enforcement. For some individuals, it can be even higher. But the cost to give someone a home of their own is only about $20,000.”

The event comes as the federal goal of ending veteran homelessness in 2015 is less than 18 months away. With a decline of 24 percent in veteran homelessness since 2010, the nation is making significant progress – and much of this success, as the First Lady noted, is because of city leadership.

Creating a “Yes Culture”

Cities have been at the forefront of ending veteran homelessness for reasons that were summed up by Houston’s Director of Homeless Initiatives, Mandy Chapman Semple, who spoke about the ability of mayors to create a “yes culture.”

“Mayor Parker created a ‘yes culture’ that was brought together with technical expertise on the ground,” said Chapman Semple. “Service providers are often eager to collaborate but don’t know how. When their obstacles are identified with the help of technical engagement and the support of mayors, then there really is a yes culture.”

Mayor Parker’s leadership has relied on measurable goals and appropriate metrics to gauge progress. “In Houston, we were initially measuring our success by how many veterans we were placing into housing,” said Mayor Parker. “But then we realized that our housing retention rate was only 50%. We knew we had to fix something. As a result, we focused on what we could do to ensure veterans stayed in housing.”

Mayor Parker said that leaders have to be willing to use a “big stick” and block funding for organizations who do not adjust to meet the goal of ending veteran homelessness.

The mayor went on to say, “We have a lot of great organizations who for decades had been doing good work, but they were working in parallel. We brought everyone together and said that the silos that were preventing success had to be broken down. We identified who was doing what worked best and aligned everyone around the specific goal of ending veteran homelessness.”

Building a Network

The theme of city leaders breaking down silos, forming partnerships and accomplishing what needs to be done was echoed by other mayors in attendance.

Joining Mayor Parker was NLC President and St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman, NLC 1st Vice President and Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker, New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu and Jacksonville Mayor Alvin Brown.

Mayor Coleman spoke about developing systems that provide “real time” information through partnerships with state agencies, non-profits and other stakeholders. In addition, the mayor discussed the importance of local leaders using their positions in the community to raise awareness about ending veteran homelessness and urging their peers in surrounding cities to join them.

To help gather support among local leaders, Mayor Coleman created the Homeless Veteran Leadership Network (HVLN) within NLC. The HVLN supports the Mayors Challenge by engaging NLC members to join the Challenge, connecting them to technical resources and sharing best practices.

Focusing on What Works

Other best practices shared by leaders from the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, National Alliance to End Homelessness (NAEH), and Department of Veterans Affairs and other cities such as New York and Tallahassee include:

  • Engaging all sectors of the community and coordinating them through a lead agency designated and supported by the mayor.
  • Using data-driven strategies such as Housing First to place homeless veterans into housing and include supportive services as necessary.
  • Developing “coordinated assessment” systems to effectively and efficiently match available resources to those in need.
  • Knowing all homeless veterans by name and prioritize them for services using tools such as the Vulnerability Index.
  • “Co-locating” federal VA officials in the same physical space as city and state agencies to reduce the amount of time and the number of trips veterans must make before getting needed services such as access to employment, healthcare, and education.
  • Having trained police officers actively engaged with homeless service providers.
  • Integrating employment efforts with the work of homeless service providers.
  • Providing free public transportation passes to veterans.

Continuing the Momentum

Throughout the day, local leaders were recognized for the critical role they play in ending veteran homelessness. With progress being seen in so many communities, there is no doubt that momentum is building. We know what works, we have the data and for the first time in decades, communities have the needed resources.

The White House’s recognition and leadership is a testament to this exciting moment. But in the end, honoring our veterans goes beyond events at the White House and parades on holidays. Truly honoring the men and women who have served our nation must first be made evident by all of us doing what is necessary to ensure each and every veteran has a safe place to call home.

Click here to join the Mayors Challenge today.

For more information about how NLC can help start or improve efforts to end veteran homelessness in your community, visit www.nlc.org/veteranshousing or contact us at veterans@nlc.org.

Watch the First Lady’s announcement and read the White House fact sheet.

 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.

NLC at 90: Supporting Our Nation’s Veterans

NLC is celebrating 90 years of making cities better place to live. Read the anniversary kick-off letter from NLC President Chris Coleman, mayor of Saint Paul, Minn.

NLC supported veteran education opportunities following the Vietnam War. Photo courtesy of Morehead State University

Photo courtesy of Morehead State University

As NLC celebrates its 90th anniversary, we again join the nation in pausing this Memorial Day weekend to reflect on the sacrifices made by the men and women who have served in our armed forces.

Today, as in the past, cities face the reality of thousands of veterans returning home from the battlefield. With their unique skills and experiences, veterans are assets to our communities.

To support veterans and their families, NLC works with local leaders to ensure our veterans successfully reintegrate into communities after their time in the military has ended.

In the wake of the Vietnam War, NLC partnered with the Office of Economic Opportunity to establish the Veterans’ Education and Training Services (VETS) program. The program worked with veteran “peer counselors” in Chicago, Cleveland, Denver, Detroit, Indianapolis, Los Angeles, Miami, Newark, Providence, Seattle and Wichita.

Peer counselors worked with veterans to help them connect to education and training programs, employment counseling, housing and other services.

In the program’s first three and a half years, more than 25,000 veterans were connected to some form of assistance. An outside evaluation of the VETS program noted, “The most effective programs tended to be those with strong ties to local governmental agencies.”

Today, NLC’s work to support veterans continues. As the country’s presence in Iraq and Afghanistan declines, our military is undergoing force reductions due to changing global needs. The confluence of these factors with an economy continuing to recover from the Great Recession has led to veteran unemployment rates that have been above the national average, particularly for veterans who have served after September 11th.

These challenges are one element that can explain why young veterans and their families are already being seen among the ranks of our nation’s homeless.

To help end this national tragedy by the federal goal of 2015, NLC has partnered with The Home Depot Foundation. By supporting cities, sharing best practices and engaging with local efforts, The Home Depot Foundation, NLC and cities have been a part of a 24 percent decline in veteran homelessness since 2010.

This progress is due to a focused effort by the President and agencies such as the Department of Veterans Affairs, HUD and the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness. While these federal agencies have provided resources and technical support to communities, it has been the collaborative work driven by city leaders that has powered this change.

From San Diego to Salt Lake City, Phoenix to St. Paul, New Orleans to Washington, D.C., cities are at the center of efforts that are uniting all levels of government with the non-profit community, faith communities, the business sector and philanthropies.

Cities will always be hubs of economic activity and services. Ensuring veterans receive the dignity of a safe place to call home and the opportunity to continue serving their community has been a hallmark of NLC’s first 90 years.

Moving forward, NLC and our members will continue our presence on the front lines to honor our veterans and their families.

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.

vets-stats-1-f

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.

vets-stats-2-f
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.

Elisha_blog
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.

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.

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

Habitat for Humanity Launches New Veterans Build Initiative

Earlier this summer, seven house frames were constructed on the National Mall over a four day period. The Habitat for Humanity event, Veterans Build on the Mall, was a part of the organization’s annual AmeriCorps Build-a-thon that draws attention to the volunteer service program as well as the need for affordable housing in local communities. This year’s Veterans Build on the Mall, sponsored by The Home Depot Foundation, was specifically designed to raise awareness of important opportunities offered through Habitat’s new Veterans Build initiative and Repair Corps program.

Veterans Build

Habitat for Humanity International has established a formal Veterans Build Initiative with the specific mission to provide housing solutions and volunteer and employment opportunities to U.S. veterans, military service members, and their families. In addition,  hundreds of the over 1,500 local Habitat for Humanity affiliates across the United States also serve veterans,  and they accomplish their mission with a five-pronged approach that includes:

  • Building simple, decent and affordable housing for military, veterans, and their families.
  • Engaging military members, veterans, families, veterans’ groups and all military supporters in volunteer programs and veteran-related advocacy.
  • Capitalizing on skill sets gained from military service with recruitment targeting veterans as Habitat for Humanity International/local affiliate employees, board members and extended volunteers, national service members, interns and fellows.
  • Promoting cultural competency for Habitat affiliates engaging military and veterans and providing access to financial literacy and homeownership education programs to veterans.
  • Hosting events that highlight veteran housing needs and honor their service, including the 9/11 Day of Service, MLK Day and Veterans Day.

Habitat for Humanity of Coastal Fairfield County

Habitat for Heroes Ground Breaking 2012 at Habitat for Humanity of Coastal Fairfield County.

Habitat for Heroes Ground Breaking 2012 at Habitat for Humanity of Coastal Fairfield County.

Habitat for Humanity of Coastal Fairfield County (Habitat CFC) in Connecticut is one of the local affiliates that have joined the Veterans Build Initiative with their Habitat for Heroes program. The initiative launched in July 2012, when staff worked to identify the first build site. Habitat CFC teamed up with the local Veterans Affairs Medical Center to select their first Habitat for Heroes veteran homeowner, Staff Sergeant Juliet Taylor. On Veterans Day 2012, Habitat CFC staff, volunteers, AmeriCorps members, local veteran organizations, corporate sponsors, and city officials came together to break ground on the future home site. The house is scheduled for completion on Veterans Day 2013, when the next Habitat for Heroes homeowner is expected to be announced.

The City of Bridgeport, CT, an NLC member, has been a long-time partner of Habitat CFC’s work. The city plays an instrumental role in Habitat CFC’s land acquisition process, identifying blighted and abandoned land and transferring the deed over to Habitat CFC for little or no charge knowing the future tax-paying homeowner will be rooted in the neighborhood. “The municipalities in which Habitat has built homes have contributed enormously to its success,” said Bruce Berzin, Habitat CFC’s Co-President and Chief Operating Officer. “Habitat homeowners pay more than $500,000 per year in property taxes to these cities – and moreover, are active, engaged, hard-working citizens.” Bridgeport Mayor Bill Finch supports Habitat’s affordable homeownership model by attending Habitat CFC home dedications and other special events. In addition, the city’s Veteran’s Affairs Office has also provided resources to Habitat CFC staff as they began the Habitat for Heroes program.

Habitat CFC depends on community support and collaboration to succeed in its mission to provide affordable homeownership opportunities. When choosing a location for a Habitat for Heroes build site, the site’s proximity to veteran supportive services is an essential element. Habitat CFC staff were able to identify a neighborhood for the first build that is within walking distance to Homes for the Brave, a local veteran service provider, and plans to place future Habitat for Heroes homes in the same neighborhood to help foster a supportive veteran community.

The habitat model heavily relies on volunteers to complete the building process. With the undertaking of the Veterans Build Initiative, it was revealed that many Habitat CFC volunteers were also veterans, eager to support fellow veterans through the program. Veterans can volunteer in the Habitat ReStore, where each day of volunteering is equivalent to contributing $200 towards the Habitat for Heroes build. Beyond veterans and their families, the wider community has also shown support for the Veterans Build initiative, recognizing the critical need for affordable housing for those who have served our country.

As communities nationwide strive to provide affordable housing for their veterans, Habitat for Humanity has proven to be a valuable asset. Since 2011, Habitat affiliates across the country have helped meet the housing needs of over 450 veterans and their families, while expanding their capacity to involve veterans as volunteers in their overall affordable homebuilding process. As Habitat CFC demonstrates, collaboration with local government ensures the work to support accessible, affordable housing for veterans is as effective and far reaching as possible.

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.

Veteran Homelessness: “It doesn’t have to last forever.”

After serving in the Coast Guard, Shelley Gilbert was looking forward to spending more time with her two daughters and two grandchildren. Then she lost her job, her apartment, and moved into a hotel, trying to keep her family together. She was able to find work at a restaurant, but between the long hours on her feet and a long commute involving multiple buses and walking, she bruised her sciatic nerve. The pain left her unable to work and she went to the hospital for help.

While at the hospital, Ms. Gilbert was given a packet of information for veterans and learned about the services of Friendship Place in Washington, D.C. Her ordeal had taken place over 17 months and she wondered how she would ever be able to once again have a stable place to call home. Fortunately, Friendship Place is one of a growing number of organizations administering a relatively new program through the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs called Supportive Services for Veteran Families (SSVF).

Ms. Gilbert’s story is not uncommon. She is one of an estimated 1.4 million households led by a veteran and living in poverty. With the federal government’s goal of ending veteran homelessness by 2015, keeping impoverished households out of homelessness is just as challenging and important as getting homeless veterans into housing.

Recently, at the conference of the National Alliance to End Homelessness, VA officials talked about this challenge. They noted that approximately 10 percent of veteran households living in poverty become homeless. What is it that leads a person to become homeless rather than remaining poor but housed? This is a question that has been repeatedly researched by social scientists.

Increasingly, it is recognized that it is very challenging to develop specific and accurate criteria for determining the factors that lead to homelessness. As a result, SSVF program administrators are being encouraged to use their resources to rapidly re-house households that are experiencing homelessness. The program is designed to be a flexible source of money to help families keep their housing or get into new housing. It can be used for car repairs and other purposes that are demonstrably connected to allowing a veteran to maintain their housing. But the persistent challenge of matching the right resources to the right people at the right time when resources are limited has led program administrators to lean more toward rapid re-housing efforts then prevention.

Despite these new resources, VA officials stressed that they cannot meet the needs of veterans alone. They need the support of partnerships in communities to meet the needs of veterans who are not eligible for VA services and/or have needs that the VA simply cannot address. In Washington, D.C., the city’s Office of Veterans Affairs has helped forge relationships to better support veterans. In Philadelphia, one of the SSVF administrator’s, Project HOME, works with a variety of stakeholders, including the Philadelphia Veterans Multi-Service and Education Center, the Exelon Foundation, legal service providers, and the City’s Office of Supportive Housing to ensure there is a coordinated and collaborative intake process that can help meet various veteran needs.

Despite a 17.2 percent reduction in homelessness among veterans since 2009, more remains to be done if we are to keep veterans housed and move the more than 62,000 currently homeless veterans into housing. City leaders have a vital role in bringing stakeholders together to meet this goal.

When Ms. Gilbert began working with her case manager at Friendship Place, she was told that if she could find an apartment, she would be moved in within days. She found an apartment on Tuesday, and on Friday her family was moving into to a new home. “We moved into our new home on Veterans Day,” Ms. Gilbert recalled. “Our situation – it didn’t need to last forever, we just needed a little help and now I’m back.” Today, Shelley is not only at work as a medical technician, but she has saved enough money to buy a car. To give back, she shares her story, and is now a member of the Board of Directors for Friendship Place.

The bipartisan support for SSVF as a resource for veterans is a rare opportunity in the current fiscal climate. As cities see more SSVF resources in their communities, it is vital that the program be well integrated with existing efforts to serve veterans. To learn more about what you can do in your city to help the SSVF program succeed, contact the program’s regional coordinator for your area by calling (877) 737-0111, or contact me at harig-blaine@nlc.org.