City functionally ends veteran homelessness

City functionally ends veteran homelessness

By Chris Teale (File photo)

On the night of January 28, The Partnership to Prevent and End Homelessness in the City of Alexandria, a public-private coalition, carried out the city’s Point-In-Time survey to produce a snapshot of those experiencing homelessness in the city, and found that 12 of the hundreds of sheltered and unsheltered homeless residents were veterans.

Since then, the city’s department of community and human services worked to house those veterans in keeping with first lady Michelle Obama’s Mayors Challenge to End Veteran Homelessness, where cities committed to ending veteran homelessness in 2015. On Veterans Day on November 11, Alexandria announced it has functionally ended veteran homelessness, meaning the city has a greater capacity for housing homeless veterans than the need for permanent veteran housing.

“As we celebrate Veterans Day, we are very proud that Alexandria’s community has joined forces to ensure that those who served our country with honor can continue to live with dignity,” said Mayor Bill Euille in a statement. Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) also announced last month that Virginia was certified as the first state in the nation to functionally end veteran homelessness across the commonwealth.

The federal government defines a veteran as someone who served on active duty in the armed forces, and who was not dishonourably discharged. But Alexandria’s department of community and human services broadened the definition to include those who were dishonorably discharged or served as reservists.

“We’re calling them service members, because sometimes we have a lot of our homeless veterans who may have had dishonorable discharges, and in our opinion we thought we still need to be able to serve these veterans and those who were in the National Guard and maybe didn’t get called to duty,” said Jessica Lurz, the city’s homeless services coordinator. “They’re still service members in our community.”

The decrease represents an enormous improvement from the findings in the city’s Point-In-Time surveys in previous years. In 2013, the city had 11 homeless veterans, but in 2014 that number increased to 18. Officials used a chart to visually track those requiring shelter. Each veteran tracked individually is represented as a yellow ribbon, which is then moved to a silhouette of a house when a veteran is housed.

To do that, the department had monthly meetings to review the list of veterans, and partnered with a number of organizations including the Alexandria Community Shelter, Carpenter’s Shelter and the Office of Veterans Affairs to help provide homeless veterans with targeted programs like job training, health care, substance abuse treatment and mental health services.

“One of the things that we were really careful about is making sure that we have the community partnerships,” said Lisa Gilbert, the city’s director of the office of community services. “We even partnered with a community member, a retired veteran, who was a part of the team, she was a community member who was interested. We also have a member of our staff who is a wife of an officer currently serving, and she took on the responsibility of co-organizing this group.

“We had a lot of partners, a lot of people that were interested in making sure veterans were housed and that they had the services available to them.”

In addition, city council leased city-owned property to New Hope Housing, a nonprofit that provides both shelters and more permanent housing to the homeless. On October 30, council voted unanimously to lease property at 211 Aspen St. to the organization at $1 per month for three years to house homeless veterans.

“New Hope Housing is a partner within our strategic plan to prevent and end homelessness; they play a key role in that,” said Lurz. “That partnership between our office and New Hope Housing, we really were all working together with that goal met so we could offer more housing to people in our community.”

Officials stressed that a functional end to veteran homelessness does not mean there is no veteran homelessness at all in the city, as some people who experience homelessness choose not to accept housing and a veteran may become newly homeless at any point in the future. The aim is that any homeless veteran will move into permanent housing within an average of 90 days after connecting with the city’s homeless response system.

“Our work continues, it doesn’t stop, it continues because we still have veterans,” said Gilbert. “It doesn’t mean that no one will be homeless in our community, no veteran will be homeless. But as they hit our system, we’re able to respond to them quickly. That was the biggest thing we got out of this initiative, having a system that responds quickly.”

“We’re going to keep our monthly meeting, and we’re going to expand that because the next initiative that’s coming out of the federal government is to end chronic homelessness by 2017,” said Lurz. “We want to use the lessons learned by using this by-names list and to have this community partnership around ending it.

“We’ll continue to have those meetings and invite people to the table as we still have veterans and we’ll expand it to some of our other vulnerable homeless population.”