Combatting homelessness among Veterans – a model to follow

November is an important month for Veterans. This November Boulder County was able to honor our homeless Veterans with new hope. Thanks to a regional and county-wide effort , 25 chronically homeless veterans now have access to a home. Long time Bridge House clients like Bob –  who has served over 4 years in the military is now housed after 13 years on the streets, and Sam a who was in the Air Force his entire career and on the streets for over two years now has an apartment of his own.

Each November 11th, Veteran’s Day honors those who serve and have served our country giving the rest of us a chance to appreciate their sacrifices made on our behalf.  But with each passing Veteran’s Day, we have far too many homeless Veterans in our community. Due to the traumatic events associated with military service a disproportionate amount of Veterans find themselves on the streets. This has become an inter-generational challenge with Veterans from Vietnam, Desert Storm and from Iraq and Afghanistan falling through the cracks and ending up jobless, homeless and forgotten. At Bridge House we estimate that 15% of our most frequent clients are Veterans.

Veterans Day 2012 was different. Our community has noticed and is not tolerating that those who have served our country often become the most vulnerable among us. At a national level, the United States Department of Veterans Affairs (the VA) is taking a stand and, in conjunction with the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), is supplying more housing resources for Veterans coupled with support services. This national initiative allows local communities like ours to be able to offer housing vouchers and case management to move homeless Veterans off the streets and into housing.

Here’s the strategy:

Access the resource and get it to the people in need – For the first time Boulder County has VASH  (VA Supportive Housing) vouchers in our community. Thanks to Boulder Housing Partners, the Boulder Shelter for the Homeless who applied for and Boulder County Housing Authority who now administers these vouchers made possible by HUD and the VA, VASH vouchers have been designated for Boulder County from the regional allocation to house 25 local homeless Veterans. These vouchers provide not only a subsidy so that Veterans can afford market rents, they are coupled with a dedicated case manager from the VA to provide assistance with housing search, securing housing and signing a lease, and a year of on-going support including access to benefits, jobs and medical care. With this concrete resource, Boulder County Veterans who have been unable to afford housing or have not been stable enough to be successful in housing now have a clear and accessible pathway to housing.

Know who the most vulnerable are in order to efficiently and rapidly move them into housing – When the VASH vouchers first became available in the summer, agencies serving the homeless immediately made lists of client who are Veterans to refer. Given our intimate knowledge of the most chronically homeless and our close relationships to those who are often service resistant, Bridge House made over 20 referrals to the program and offered office space for the VA case manager to meet with clients.

An additional effort launched in November to enhance referral efforts by better knowing who our homeless Veterans are and how to streamline them into services. For the whole month of November Boulder County participated in the Colorado Counts regional effort with the Metro Denver Homeless Initiative to administer the Vulnerability Index (VI) to as many homeless Veterans as possible in the county. The VI is a survey tool developed and used nationally to determine the needs and eligibility of homeless individuals in order to rapidly move them into housing and services. It allows for communities to not only understand the needs of who is homeless but to know them on an individual level and prioritize people for services based on vulnerability. This effort in November to use the VI on Veterans has rallied many community partners, including nonprofit agencies serving the homeless and the Boulder Vet Center, to strategically and systematically get a clear picture of who is in need of housing and services. Over 60 surveys were completed and these will lead to future allocations of VASH vouchers.

What can we learn?

The VASH program is undoubtedly a necessary and terrific opportunity to help men and women who have served our country. It is also a model for what works to move homeless individuals into housing. The impact of having vouchers, ie the concrete resource, and the support of case management to be accessible in real time, and having a systematic way to know by name with specific information who is in most need of housing based on concrete data, are three key ingredients for how to get people off the streets quickly and permanently. The example of VASH shows what we can work toward for all segments of the homeless population.  In a community as intimate as Boulder, it is possible to identify the most vulnerable, to work with them to get stable, and tap into a resource to allow them to access the rental market. While funding is always the hurdle, a voucher program like VASH demonstrates real results that should be studied and replicated.

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