March 1st, 2014

New England states address mandate to end vet homelessness

In 2009, the Obama Administration, in conjunction with the Department of Veterans Affairs put forth a bold challenge, announcing a mandate to end homelessness among military veterans. The goal, to get all veterans off the streets by the end of 2015 is a lofty one, but one that the federal government, with bi-partisan support from the U.S. Congress, has put some serious financial resources behind, including vouchers for short term housing help and family support.

With only 20 months to go before the deadline, the various programs have helped to drive a 24 percent decline in veteran homelessness according to a national inventory. Between 2012 and 2013 alone, the drop in veterans without housing was 8 percent while overall homeless rates dropped by about half as much.

Each year, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development conducts a Point in Time Count (PIT Count), an inventory of sheltered and unsheltered people broken into subcategories. Since 2009, the count shows that the number of homeless veterans in four New England states has gone down between 6 percent and 14 percent. The PIT Count for Maine and Vermont, however, has risen in that time 30 percent and 55 percent, respectively.

While the PIT Count can be a useful tool, explains Kevin Casey, network homeless coordinator for Veterans Administration New England Healthcare, this report may not accurately reflect changes in the number of homeless actually out there rather than more success in locating them.

In Maine, for example, a grassroots organization made up of retired veterans and active reserve and Guard members, the Maine Military & Community Network, took over the PIT Count in 2012, a move that affected the overall numbers.

“They did it in a typical Department of Defense style,” says Carol Kulesza, Maine’s Health Care for Homeless Veterans coordinator, “mapping out the count, setting up grids to cover, etc. We definitely saw an uptick in numbers when they took over.”

Casey would prefer to focus on the number of people who access programs.

“We do ourselves a disservice relying on the PIT Count,” he says. Some veterans may choose not to identify themselves as such or they may not be homeless on the night of the count but may be  chronically homeless nonetheless.

According to Preston Maynard, director of homeless programs for the Connecticut VA, over the past four years, more than 1,000 veterans sought services in Connecticut including housing assistance, mental health counseling and job training, up from about 400 five years ago. This increase reflects new programs like one designed to identify potential problems and intervene to keep people in their homes.

“Over the last four years, we have been aggressively reaching out and engaging veterans and enrolling them in programs,” says Maynard. “I would say that two out of three calls we take are from people seeking preventative assistance.”

Sharing data across agencies has been a big help, Maynard adds and groups like the Connecticut Heroes Project (CTHP), a non-profit funded by private donations created to help agencies coordinate services, have helped to further the program.

“Connecticut has the resources to be a state that will achieve the goal by 2015,” says Gabriel Zucker, associate director of the CTHP. “If we can keep the energy behind this cause and get everything on line, we should be successful in reaching the goal.”

Still, the goal to get everyone into housing before the deadline will be difficult to reach.

“I think we are seeing a significant reduction,” says Kulesza, “but the problem is that new people are always entering homelessness. We need to continue to focus on prevention and we want to always keep tabs on it.”

By Catherine Robertson Souter

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