The city has made dramatic progress in housing homeless veterans thanks to bold leadership and community partnerships.
If you are younger than 40, you likely have no memory of a time when persistent and chronic homelessness wasn’t a part of most major cities.
If you are older than 40, you witnessed the emergence of chronic homelessness in the early 1980’s, its persistent presence in urban landscapes and may have come to the conclusion that there is simply nothing that can be done about it.
Despite this, the past two years have seen the emergence of a historic level of local leaders committed to showing that homelessness need not be a permanent fixture in communities. As part of the Mayors Challenge to End Veteran Homelessness, 859 local leaders across 45 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico have committed to ensuring all Veterans and their families have a place to call home.
As 2016 begins, we have a chance to see how specific communities are doing on this issue. One city that has made dramatic progress is Phoenix thanks to bold leadership and community partnerships.
During his inaugural address in 2012, Mayor Greg Stanton pledged that ending chronic homelessness was a priority. To achieve this goal, the Mayor and the community made the conscious decision to focus on the city’s chronically homeless veterans as a first sub-population. Mayor Stanton and community leaders recognized that focusing on veteran homelessness was the gateway that would allow them to ensure all veterans and all those experiencing homelessness could obtain the services they need.
Once all veterans have a place to call home, the next step is to look at what is needed to maintain that housing. Employment, job training, education, medical care, and mental health supports can only be successful when someone is stably housed. Making sure these supports flow from a housing-centered focus is known as a Housing First strategy and has been at the core of Phoenix’s Project H3VETS Initiative.
ProjectH3 VETS grew out of the Maricopa County team that was a part of the 100,000 Homes Campaign. Lead by the Arizona Coalition to End Homelessness, the initiative is comprised of leaders from non-profits such as the United Way, federal, state, and city government, affordable housing developers and businesses across the Greater Phoenix area. Project H3 VETS has continued to lead the community’s response to house all homeless Veterans as efforts evolved through initiatives such as the VA’s 25 Cities.
Two housing developments that uniquely illustrate the collaborative approach of the Phoenix community are Grand Veterans Village and Victory Place. Developed and operated by U.S. VETS and Cloudbreak Communities, respectively, the projects were made possible through coordination with philanthropies, veteran service organizations, non-profits, local universities, the state and the city.
The Grand Veterans Village development converted a 134-unit motel into 107 long-term supportive housing and 24 units of permanent housing for homeless veterans, including 15 women veterans.
Funding to rehabilitate the old motel units came in part from philanthropies such as The Home Depot Foundation. Support from the Foundation helped with the installation of kitchenettes, refrigerators, counter tops and double sinks in rooms. Funding also supported the creation of multiple community spaces including a computer room, lounge, counseling offices and an outdoor living space, which included a community garden. In addition, associates from Home Depot’s local retail stores volunteered on three separate occasions. As part of the company’s Team Depot, associates helped paint, lay flooring, and landscape the complex.
Complementing these contributions, local service organizations such as the Elks Lodge, American Legion, and Veterans of Foreign Wars adopted individual rooms. Their support provided furnishings such as bedding, plates and utensils. In addition, Good 360 and Sleep America provided new mattresses for each room.
Notably, as a result of this support for the project, Grand Veterans Village was completed without the use of Low-Income Housing Tax Credits (LIHTCs), the nation’s largest program supporting the development and preservation of affordable housing. This demonstrates that there are multiple ways to create affordable housing for homeless veterans through creativity and collaboration.
A variety of lessons and supports needed by formerly homeless veterans are provided with help from social work students from Arizona State University and Arizona State University School of Nursing. Residents are offered groups on budgeting, hygiene and nutrition. Nursing students provide residents with information on illnesses such as diabetes and offer self-care education around checking their glucose levels and blood pressure.
The development is located on Grand Avenue in Phoenix, which is accessible to the city’s buses and the VA hospital is approximately 15 minutes away providing access for residents to VA medical care. U.S. Vets provides residents with weekly shuttle rides to area food banks and a supermarket is across the street.
Another development that illustrates the impact of broad partnerships across the community is Victory Place, a five-acre campus comprised of four residential and one commercial phases of development. Cloudbreak Communities, with U.S. VETS as the primary support services partner, began master planning the veterans-specific community in 2002.
Cloudbreak Communities began leasing units in January of 2016 at part of their latest phase of development, Victory Place Phase IV. The latest component to Victory Place is a 96-unit addition to the existing permanent supportive housing units on the campus now totaling 203 units, plus 70 beds of transitional housing operated by U.S. VETS.
The latest phase features 30 one-bedroom and 66 studio apartments all dedicated to providing affordable and supportive housing for homeless, formerly homeless and low-income veterans. While many of the units are supported with HUD-VASH housing vouchers, a partnership with the Arizona Behavioral Health Corporation is providing 30 rental subsidies for chronically homeless veterans with a diagnosed serious mental illness who are not able to utilize the HUD-VASH program.
The Victory Place Campus still plans a fifth commercial phase of development to create an community health clinic on-site to include VA and Medicaid health services and plans to acquire an adjacent two acres to continue residential development. The Campus was completed throughout its phases using City of Phoenix and State HOME financing, LIHTC, other State resources and private equity.
The units made available at Grand Veterans Village and Victory Place are part of Phoenix’s housing stock that are paired with homeless veterans through the community’s coordinated assessment system operated by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs’ Community Resource and Referral Center (CRRC).
When a homeless veteran in Phoenix is identified, service providers across the city use a common assessment tool to help determine what supports and services a homeless individual needs. By using a common assessment, all of the area’s homeless are prioritized for assistance based on their acute need, rather than receiving services on a first come first serve basis.
Prioritizing housing and services in this way allows Phoenix to more efficiently and effectively use the community’s limited resources. In addition, prioritization allows the city to reduce the costs associated with homelessness, such as police and first-responder engagement, legal system costs and emergency room expenses.
The use of a common assessment tool has allowed Phoenix service providers to make sure homeless veterans get the personalized help they need. To help place homeless veterans into the most appropriate environment as quickly as possible, even when a housing voucher may not be immediately available, the 25 Cities system uses money from the VA’s Supportive Services for Veteran Families (SSVF) program to get the veteran into their new home until the process for using a housing voucher to keep them in their new home is completed.
Phoenix’s approach of partnering with expert affordable housing developers and service providers, as well as educational institutions, the medical and mental health communities, and philanthropies, offers cities a blueprint for how local officials can make good on their commitment to the Mayors Challenge to End Veteran Homelessness.
In 2015, Phoenix housed more than 715 homeless veterans and illustrated what progress looks like. While more work remains, the community has put in place a system that is more rapidly responding to the needs of homeless and at-risk Veterans than ever before.
The challenge of Veteran homelessness will never fully disappear. Every day new Veterans will lose their jobs, face housing insecurity, medical emergencies or need to get away from unsafe living environments. However, as cities like Phoenix come together to strengthen the way they respond to these situations, they provide proof that homelessness is not intractable and can indeed be rare, brief and non-recurring.
About the Author: Elisha Harig-Blaine is the Principal Associate for Housing (Veterans and Special Needs) at NLC. Follow Elisha on Twitter at @HarigBlaine.