“My pride is back”: Ending the shame of Veteran homelessness

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With Memorial Day approaching, we may find our thoughts drifting to enjoying a few days with family and friends away from the rush of everyday life. But hopefully, for a least a moment, we will reflect on why this three-day weekend in late-May happens. For the more than 22 million veterans, this weekend is a time to remember and honor friends and fellow soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines whose lives were given for our country.

Yesterday on Capitol Hill, leaders of federal agencies charged with coordinating the government’s work to end veteran homelessness spoke about the resources available and what communities can do to achieve this goal by 2015. In his opening remarks, Senator Burr of North Carolina talked about how federal agencies cannot accomplish this goal alone. He pointed out that community resources along with local coordination and leadership were keys to success.

The Opening Doors plan by the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness outlines the federal government’s strategic efforts to bring data-driven responses to prioritized populations. The work toward ending veteran homelessness is already showing promise. From 2010 to 2011, the number of homeless veterans fell by 11.5%, from 76,329 to 67,495. A renewed commitment by Congress and the Administration can claim some credit. Resources such as HUD-VASH vouchers and the newer Supportive Services for Veteran Families (SSVF) provide communities with flexible resources to meet the needs of veterans and their families. But to make sure these resources are effective, it is important that the right population uses the right resources at the right time.

Yesterday, speakers talked about developing a “no wrong door” model and using a “veteran-centric” approach. What do these terms mean pragmatically in our cities and towns? It means making sure the community is ready and able to meet the needs of veterans whenever and wherever they turn for help. But this presents real challenges. How is it possible to make sure everyone in a community knows about all of the resources available when things are constantly changing?

A key to success is making sure your community is not passively arranging resources and waiting for veterans to come. City leaders and municipal staff need to develop partnerships among the key stakeholders that can help reach veterans in a more proactive fashion. The old adage of an ounce of prevention being worth more than a pound of cure comes to mind.

When a veteran comes to the local VA Medical Center, are they asked about their living situation? When someone seeks assistance with housing, healthcare, transportation, childcare, or food, are they asked about whether or not they are a veteran? Who is talking with local American Legion’s, Veterans of Foreign Wars and other military service organizations? When someone is discharged from a prison or hospital, are they asked about their veteran status and housing situation? Do area faith communities know where to turn when someone comes to their doors? These are not the only questions we need to ask, but they can be the beginning of a locally coordinated effort to align local priorities with those set by federal agencies such as the Veterans Administration, the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Department of Labor.

The final speaker yesterday was Ms. Eloise Wormley, a veteran who was homeless in Washington, DC. After her service, she didn’t know how to get re-established at home. Living with her mother and friends were only temporary solutions and she found herself on the streets grappling with physical and mental health issues. Fortunately, outreach workers asked about her veteran status and she was directed to a local non-profit that used SSVF funds to provide her with a home.

“I can’t say enough about what it means to have a key to my own home,” Ms. Wormley said. “I can stay on top of things now. I have two jobs and my pride is back.”

Local leadership and coordination is what enabled Ms. Wormley’s pride to come back. Federal resources do no good without local know-how.

What is your community doing to end veteran homelessness? Share your stories, successes and challenges below and join NLC’s work to help meet the needs housing needs of all veterans by emailing me at harig-blaine@nlc.org.