We are down to around 250 veterans in Cuyahoga County who are homeless. This is a huge victory and shows remarkable progress since 2010. NEOCH has repeatedly said that the figures released every summer from HUD about the homeless population is so far off as to be deceptive and causes harm to the homeless community. This is not the case with the VA because they are actually reaching out and looking for real homeless people. The HUD stats rely too much on shelter beds which are decreasing every year. We have seen cities throughout the United States claiming huge victories in the reduction of veteran's homelessness, and at least in Cleveland this does seem to be real progress and not just paper progress. There are beds available for veterans and their is a full effort to go out and find people where they live. I don't agree with this gimmick of "functional zero," but there is no doubt that they have made huge progress in significantly reducing the number of veterans who find themselves homeless. How did they do it?
We could learn from the success at the Department of Veterans Affairs for leading the way in reducing the number of people who find themselves homeless. From what I have seen, here are my observations on why they are successful:
1. Housing opportunities are available to the population with diversity the key to this housing. They have never turned away from all forms of shelter/housing. They fund housing vouchers, transitional shelters and emergency beds. They offer fixed facilities as well as scattered site housing. They try to serve the unique needs of each person and not forcing people into the cheapest or "best" type of housing as determined by "experts" in the community. This is in stark contrast to HUD which focuses funding on one type of program and forces all other options to die for lack of funding. One year, they are big on transitional shelters or supportive services or permanent supportive housing or now "rapid rehousing." They keep jumping around and no longer allow the local community to make these decisions.
2. They have worked on all the issues facing veterans and not just shelter or housing. They can help with addiction, mental health issues, physical disabilities or legal struggles. They have always gathered other resources in the community to help veterans. There is a group that can help with clothing, furniture, utility connections, student loan debt or forgiveness or identification. They also try to make it easy for people with transportation assistance. This is the opposite of the HUD funded programs who have adopted a policy of "YO-YO" or You are On Your Own, and just like a yo-yo the individual is up then down and up again depending on how lucky they are in finding appropriate resources.
3. They have a strong commitment to finding people where they live and not expecting people to come to the VA. The VA funds beds in the shelters, they set up tables at drop in centers and soup kitchens. It is not unusual to find a veteran's representative on Sunday night at the overnight drop in center. If they hear a vet is sleeping under a tree near the Shoreway, they will come out to interview the guy and see if there is a place for him to live. They are at the hospitals, jails, libraries looking for veterans in need of help. HUD funded programs often make it difficult to access for fear of being overwhelmed with individual's angry over the small funding available locally. The VA throws their doors open to anyone with an honorable discharge and tries as hard as they can to help them.
4. They are tapping the expertise of a broad cross section of charitable agencies and not relying on one agency doing everything. This is a change in the last five years that they asked for help from other groups and are paying those groups for offering help to veterans. It previously was a closed system and only federal employees offered help to homeless veterans. Now, nearly every agency in the community has been drafted into helping with some money available to help. There are health care providers, the court system, shelters, housing providers and other government agencies are all offering assistance to stabilize the population. There is also the Veteran's Service Commission which can help with the incidentals of setting up a house or a monthly bus pass to get a veteran to work or even car repairs so they do not lose their job. There is nothing like the Veteran's Service Commission available to other non-veteran homeless people, and they have changed locally as well to be more responsive to homeless veterans.
5. Healthcare was the first step with all the other services built around getting the individual stable including their behavioral health. The largest public health system in America is the VA healthcare. It is notoriously slow and full of huge paperwork backlogs. I have not seen this in Cleveland and from what I hear, the veterans are pretty happy with the healthcare they get locally. We all need healthcare at some point, and the VA uses this universal service as the gateway to the rest of the network.
6. There is no wrong answer to the veteran struggling with housing. They do not force them to fit their problems or disability into one path off the streets. They do not say that they can only help after the veteran has been homeless for one year's time or reserve certain programs for veterans who have been homeless for a long time with a disability. They are not pitting one veteran's group against another for limited resources. I do have to say that one problem with the VA is that members of the national guard do not get the same treatment as the five branches of the US military. This seems unfair since we dramatically changed our use of the National Guard during the previous administration. We used them in an active combat zone, but did not upgrade the benefits they receive after their retirement. This is something we need to address in Congress.
7. They have combined income with their housing assistance. So, they work with people on getting them veteran's benefits, social security disability, or income from a job. Their case workers realize that housing is critical, but paying for that housing is just as critical. They have always worked on getting the veteran the benefits that they deserve. There is nothing comparable in the rest of the homeless system, but we do not work on jobs and disability help like the VA case workers. They have also had veteran's industries linked to housing programs for those engaged in job activities having a place to live while they build up a work record. The system is much more developed and robust for veterans than is available in the traditional shelters.
8. They do not rely on fictitious numbers to pretend to be succeeding. Both HUD and the VA release national reports on their progress and neither are any good. Both reports are flawed; I would say complete works of fiction. The difference is that the VA does not rely on these numbers to paper over their successes or failures. HUD uses these works of fiction to claim success when everything else points to failure. Cleveland reports a decrease in homelessness over the last year while all other evidence suggests things are bad and getting worse. Why do we see a smaller number of homeless people in Cleveland--because we lost 444 beds over the last seven years. Fewer beds means fewer homeless people to count=smaller numbers of homeless people. HUD shuts down shelter for lack of funding while the VA will begin shutting down shelters for lack of need. There are beds available at many of the VA shelters right now, but that does not mean there is not the need. HUD and the County do not care about the demands or the need, they base decisions on funding and cost savings in the community.
9. They finally realized that there is a huge amount of distrust for the VA and so they have these alternatives available. Veterans especially from the Vietnam era do not trust the VA. They were betrayed by the agency for years especially around the issues of Agent Orange. There are many vets that I meet who are angry with the VA and say that they will not go there. I can remember the on the ground nurses in the 1990s recognizing this problem, but it seems that the senior administration are finally hearing this issue. There are plenty of older men who say, "I will never go to the VA because they did me wrong in the past." This is why it is so critical to not require that it is not necessary to go to the VA first to get services. A veteran can start the path back to stability at the shelter, the drop in center or the VA hospital. It is not mandatory to start with the VA operated programs to find help.
Congratulations on making so much progress. Now it is time to teach HUD what they are doing wrong and force Congress to fund homeless services like they fund the Department of Veteran Affairs.
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