On a day when the nation pauses to give thanks for the sacrifices made by Veterans and their families, Virginians are celebrating that all of their Veterans have access to the basic dignity of a place to call home.
Today, Governor Terry McAuliffe, U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Secretary Julián Castro, and U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness (USICH) Executive Director Matthew Doherty announced that the Commonwealth of Virginia had achieved the historic accomplishment of ensuring all Veterans are on the path to a safe, stable place to call home by housing more Veterans than are being identified as homeless each month.
Gov. McAuliffe, Sec. Castro and Matthew Doherty make the historic announcement at the Virginia War Memorial in Richmond, Virginia. (Photo courtesy of HUD)
Since October 2014, the Commonwealth has housed 1,432 Veterans and their families. Earlier this year, an estimated 605 Veterans were homeless.
“Even in declaring our victory with this battle, the war is still not over,” said Governor McAuliffe. “We must remain committed to keeping homelessness among veterans, and, all Virginians, to being rare, brief and non-recurring.
The progress made by Virginia has come as the result of an unprecedented focus on the issue by all levels of government. But local, state and federal officials were not alone. They were joined by the non-profit and business communities, which recognized the need to transform the systems that serve Veterans. For the first time, Virginia has shown how an entire state can implement data-driven best practices that ensure available resources are used effectively and efficiently.
The Path to Success
Since June 2014, after more than 30 years of being viewed as an unsolvable fixture of modern life, 854 local leaders have stepped forward to give their commitment to housing all Veterans through the Mayors Challenge to End Veteran Homelessness. The National League of Cities is proud to be the lead partner with the Administration in this effort.
Across Virginia, 18 mayors and 2 county executives joined with Gov. McAuliffe on the Mayors Challenge. Their leadership has brought attention and focus to homeless Veterans in their city and across the state in ways never seen before.
The Governor’s commitment resulted a redoubling of efforts guided by the Governor’s Coordinating Council on Homelessness, the Virginia Department of Veterans Services and the Virginia Coalition to End Homelessness.
With high-level support from state and local leaders, non-profits in communities such as Richmond, Roanoke, South Hampton Roads and the Peninsula area, as well as other cities across the Commonwealth, joined with experts from Community Solutions and the Rapid Results Institute. Together with representatives from area public housing authorities, HUD and U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) medical centers, these stakeholders began communicating and coordinating in a variety of new ways.
Importantly, all of the partners agreed on the principal of Housing First. Recognizing that the solution to homelessness is housing, Housing First puts housing and the services needed to successfully maintain a home as the first line of treatment.
In the past, homeless individuals and families were regularly required to go through shelters and/or transitional housing programs, which may require lengths of sobriety or participation in other programs prior to placement into housing. This line of treatment is both expensive and prolongs a person’s instability, which can perpetuate problems at the core of an individual’s homelessness.
In addition to using the Housing First model, community partners began coordinating their assessment processes and prioritizing clients for placement into housing. This coordination allows VA staff and non-profit partners to consolidate their lists of individuals and families coming to them for assistance. Beyond the consolidation of lists, the coordination has allowed communities to develop a by name list of people experiencing homelessness and understand which person needs to access housing most urgently to avoid death.
No longer are homeless Veterans known as “that guy by the I-95 underpass.”
Instead, “that guy” is James, a 64-year-old Vietnam veteran with diabetes who has previously been treated for mental illness and substance abuse, and has lived on the street for more than 15 years.
Community partners not only know James by name, but they know which organization has an available housing voucher. They have a deeper sense of his medical and mental health needs. They know which organization can work with James to find a home. They know which organization can develop and implement a treatment plan that will allow him to keep his home and transition to a new chapter of life.
For the first time since modern homelessness has emerged, cities and community partners have been given the resources they need to tackle the issue. The focus on the Veteran subpopulation has generated bi-partisan support for programs such as the HUD-VA Supportive Housing (HUD-VASH) voucher program and the Supportive Services for Veteran Families (SSVF) program.
Since fiscal year 2008, more than 1,260 HUD-VASH vouchers have been made available in Virginia. In the past three years, the VA’s SSVF program has provided communities in the Commonwealth with more than $5.1 million for homelessness prevention and rapid-rehousing efforts.
The availability of these resources in the Commonwealth and across the country has been the difference between the rhetoric of supporting our Veterans and making a meaningful, lasting impact on the lives of tens of thousands of men, women and children nationwide.
In Virginia, Gov. McAuliffe recognized the need to supplement these federal investments. He designated $500,000 of a new $1 million program to help veterans access housing through the state’s Department of Housing and Community Development. He also proposed increasing the number of housing resource specialists working as part of Virginia’s Veteran and Family Support program under the Virginia Department of Veterans Services. The specialists support veterans as they navigate the housing process and connect them with needed services.
These new levels of partnership, coordination and investment inspired the engagement of businesses to also make contributions. Dominion Virginia Power and Appalachian Power Company have made commitments to help Veterans meet their energy needs in their new homes.
Parades and proclamations are laudable ways to honor our Veterans. But the true measure of our appreciation is shown in the lives of our Veterans.
Virginia’s achievement brings the progress already seen in cities across the country to a new level. Communities such as New Orleans, Houston, Winston-Salem and Mobile have made similar announcements this year. As the first state in the nation to make this announcement, Virginia is showing that large-scale success can be achieved when local leaders commit to a bold goal and do not relent.
About the Author: Elisha Harig-Blaine is the Principal Associate for Housing (Veterans and Special Needs) at NLC. Follow Elisha on Twitter at @HarigBlaine.