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

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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.

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