The Commonwealth of Virginia is poised to be the first state to end veteran homelessness, providing hope – and evidence – that we can end this national disgrace.
Gov. Terry McAuliffe recognizes community leaders who participated in the 100 Day Challenge, which aimed to place homeless veterans into permanent housing. (Flickr: Terry McAuliffe)
Yesterday, Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe joined federal, state and local leaders to celebrate a momentous achievement in the fight to end veteran homelessness. Over the course of 100 days, the Commonwealth of Virginia decreased veteran homelessness by 75 percent. The fastest drop in veteran homelessness ever made by a state.
The accomplishment builds on the success of a growing number of municipalities, including Phoenix, Salt Lake City and New Orleans who have ended or significantly decreased the number of homeless veterans in their communities.
“Ending veteran homelessness is a key component of making Virginia the best state in the country for active duty military personnel, veterans and their families,” said Governor McAuliffe. “I am proud of the progress we have made as a Commonwealth, but we cannot rest until every Virginia veteran has a safe and affordable place to live.”
How is such a dramatic change possible? Like most achievements – it took a lot of hard work. But for this once thought intractable issue, turning the corner has relied on these five components:
From early on, Governor McAuliffe and his administration made ending veteran homelessness a priority. McAuliffe was one of the first Governors to join the Mayors Challenge to End Veteran Homelessness. His commitment inspired 14 mayors and county executives to join the Challenge.
Under the Governor’s direction, Secretary of Veterans and Defense Affairs John Harvey, led the Department of Veteran Services’ work to develop a statewide “boot-camp.” The statewide coordination was driven by the Governor’s Coordinating Council on Homelessness, local providers and guided by the experience of the Virginia Coalition to End Homelessness, as well as nationally recognized organizations such as the Rapid Results Institute and Community Solutions.
In addition, to support local improvements in service delivery, the Governor proposed funding of $1 million that would help provide veterans with access to housing through the state’s Department of Housing and Community Development. He also proposed increasing the number of housing counselors working as part of the state’s Wounded Warrior Program from three to five. The counselors support veterans as they navigate the housing process. These proposals have broad bipartisan and bicameral support in the state legislature.
In late September, as part of a two-day homeless veteran boot-camp, local leaders from cities across the commonwealth joined with homeless service providers, veteran groups, local Public Housing Authorities (PHAs), officials from the state’s Department of Veteran Services, Virginia Housing Development Authority and from federal partners including the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness (USICH), U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).
The boot-camp focused on four regions across the commonwealth. The teams represented Richmond, Roanoke, the Peninsula region (Newport News and Hampton) and South Hampton (Norfolk, Virginia Beach, Portsmouth, Chesapeake and Suffolk). During the boot-camp, each team developed week by week action plans based on the demand for services and the resources in each community.
In reviewing their success, each of the four teams acknowledged the importance of working with each other more effectively. Most teams met bi-weekly to discuss their progress, address obstacles, refine each partner’s role and responsibilities and collectively match clients with available housing. The improvements in community conversations were paired with commitment from federal leaders.
This collective dedication created an environment of accountability. With the setting of ambitious goals came an expectation by on-the-ground staff that they would be given the tools needed, such as answers to regulatory ambiguities that had previously slowed progress. Conversely, leaders had agreed upon goals with a timeline by which they could measure progress each week.
3. Data-Driven Planning
The 2014 point-in-time count found 620 homeless veterans statewide. The four teams aimed to house 370 homeless veterans during the 100 days. These goals were determined using data from community Homeless Management Information Service (HMIS) systems, VA data and on-the-ground knowledge of the area’s homeless veteran population informed by outreach workers and case managers.
This data quantified the existing demand for services and was paired with a mapping out of the services and resources available in each community. PHA representatives discussed the allocation of HUD-VASH housing vouchers, traditional housing choice vouchers (section 8) and other housing resources. Non-profits discussed their administration of resources from the Supportive Services for Veteran Families (SSVF) programs, which provides money for homelessness prevention and rapid-rehousing, as well as the Grant and Per Diem (GPD) program that supports transitional housing.
Using this data to guide the way forward, each of the four teams exceeded their initial goals. All told, the four teams housed, or will place into housing very shortly, 462 veterans.
4. Proven Strategies
With progress being seen in communities across the country, there is a clear understanding of what works. Phoenix, Salt Lake City, New Orleans, Houston and others such as those involved with the Department of Veterans Affairs’ 25 Cities Initiative have put in place coordinated assessment processes. The most successful of these processes include a prioritization component (the VI-SPDAT) to help efficiently place the most vulnerable individuals into housing.
In each community, these tools operated within a collective agreement that Housing First was the way forward. Stakeholder conversations were built upon the understanding that the best way to solve homelessness was by placing people in housing and providing them with the person-centered resources and services necessary to maintain housing.
In this environment, each community focused on how to make that concept a reality.
5. Concrete Goals
As elected officials have joined the Mayors Challenge and cities across the country have begun reaching a tipping point on veteran homelessness, many are asking what the end of veteran homelessness means. What does this look like?
In the past year, the term “functional zero” has surfaced as a way to talk about this concept. Recently, USICH published a two-page guide to help leaders better understand when their city has met the Mayors Challenge.
“There are no longer any veterans experiencing unsheltered homelessness in the community…the community has the resources and a plan and timeline for providing permanent housing opportunities to all veterans who are currently sheltered but are still experiencing homelessness,” says the report.
It is particularly important for elected leaders to understand the concept of functional zero.
No elected official operates under the notion that capital infrastructure projects are elements of a static municipal plan. Community needs for water, sewer and transportation evolve. Equally, functional zero brings cities to the point where they can maintain the progress that brings the availability and application of resources in line with the demand for services.
The social capital that cities develop in order to reach functional zero must be maintained and evolve over time. As homeless veterans are housed, they can be provided services and build the trusting relationships that can help even the most resistant individuals. Over time, these relationships and services reduce harmful behaviors, such as addiction, and connect veterans and their families to education, employment and credentialing opportunities.
Today, we are less than 11 months away from the federal goal to end veteran homelessness. To help spread the lessons learned in Virginia, NLC is holding regional forums with HUD across the country, including at our upcoming Congressional City Conference next month in Washington, D.C. (register here today).
As the Commonwealth positions to be the first state to end veteran homelessness, they provide hope, but more importantly evidence, that we can end this disgrace.
About the Author: Elisha Harig-Blaine is the Principal Associate for Housing (Veterans and Special Needs) at NLC. Follow Elisha on Twitter at @HarigBlaine.