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Roundtable shares strategies to help homeless veterans

The American Legion's 51st annual Washington Conference featured a roundtable March 18 that focused on strategies to eliminate homelessness among veterans. The Homeless Veterans Providers Roundtable, sponsored by the Legion's Economic Commission, brought together representatives from more than a dozen state and federal organizations."Everyone is asking for more resources, so it's good for us all to pool together," said Mark Walker, deputy economic director of The American Legion. Addressing the 18 participants at the roundtable discussion, Walker said the Legion "wants to work with all of you. We want to eliminate veteran homelessness because it is a national disgrace. Less than one percent of our population serves in the military, yet we still have many veterans who become homeless."

Mary Rooney, who works with VA's homeless veterans initiative, said that some veterans have always been hard to reach, and others consistently do not accept benefits and services VA can offer them. A VA call center for assistance to homeless veteran providers has been successful, Rooney said, with more than 23,000 calls since the program started in March 2010. The call center's phone number is (877) 424 3838.

Rooney said VA is concerned whether funding will be provided for another 10,000 HUD/VASH housing vouchers for homeless veterans. "A key message is that HUD/VASH is critical and Congress needs to support it." She said VA has about $50 million in funding to provide grants to nonprofit organizations for low-income veterans and their families, in order to keep their homes or secure another house quickly.

The Department of Labor's Gordon Burke spoke about the agency's Homeless Veterans Reintegration Program (HVRP), which focuses on finding jobs for homeless veterans and providing them with employment services -- through grants to providers.

"We decided last year to award such a program grant to providers for female veterans and families. We awarded 26 three-year grants. And these grants go up to 300,000 dollars per year," Burke said. "We also have grants for incarcerated veterans, which also began last year, that was mandated by Congress." While this grant program initially focused on veterans held in state and federal prisons, Burke said the decision was made to "focus on the ones already released, to help them find jobs."

Sometimes, Burke said, there is "a lot of talk about how our homeless programs are broken. In 2009, we served about 14,000 (homeless veterans) and about 8,000 got jobs -- a rate of about 58 percent."

Several roundtable participants mentioned the growing problem of homeless women veterans, many with children. Burke estimated DoL would serve about 2,500 women veterans this year, but they were a more challenging population to help because "female homeless vets will not self-identify. It's very difficult. But they're not self-identifying for all the right reasons. They stand to lose custody of their children. But we would be able to reach out and protect them if they did self-identify."

John Driscoll of the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans predicted that if the HUD/VASH program "builds to 60,000 vouchers, that is the end of chronic veteran homelessness as we understand it today. It will become manageable, the veterans will have housing and stabilization, and those vouchers don't go away. When one veteran moves on, that voucher remains to help another homeless veteran."

Driscoll said the number of homeless veterans has dropped from about 250,000 in 2004 to 76,000 today. "I don't are what planet you're from, or what (methodology) you're using, this is an impressive reduction. Most of those veterans become independently housed and employed in less than six months." He also mentioned HVRP and the need to make sure that -- once veterans get jobs, they keep them. "These people, the only reason they are in the HVRP program is because they fell down and broke somewhere along the way.

"So we fail them if we don't stand by them and continue to nurture them in their recovery. Because just getting across that (job) threshold isn't the whole story." Driscoll said his agency was "very proud" to stand with The American Legion and The American Legion Auxiliary "when you established the Homeless Veterans Task Force. "The American Legion was one of the first organizations to stand up and say, ‘Help us find out how to help,' and you're already doing it in many places."Society takes two basic approaches in solving problems such as veteran homelessness, said Steve Berg, vice president of the National Alliance to End Homelessness. "Running some nice programs or making the effort to solve the problem." When VA Secretary Eric Shinseki announced the goal of ending veteran homelessness in five years, "he shifted the paradigm to the latter. There are some implications to this change, and The American Legion can do a lot in terms of moving things forward.

"For example, the local (VA) medical center director understands that ending homelessness among veterans is part of his job. A lot of American Legion local entities meet with these directors, and the issue appears on the agenda for all of those meetings. So the system approach is very important, having it as a priority for local management," he said.

Berg explained that VA has had homeless veteran programs for a long time, "but they've been focused on two-year residential programs," where veterans "come out the other end ready to support themselves and get permanent housing. And the programs have worked well. But there are a lot of homeless vets for whom that is not the right program model.

"Disabilities are more serious and no two-year program is going to get them to the point where they are self-sufficient. Lots of homeless veterans don't need a residential program. They're facing a short-term economic emergency, and they need short-term economic help," Berg said. "The key to success is to listen to homeless veterans -- they've earned the right to have people listen to them."

While some observers may claim that ending homelessness among veterans is impractical, Berg said the goal was really "just a question of values. It's up to us to make clear that it is worth doing. We know it's practical, and the solution to homelessness is well known at the system level. It's just a matter of making it happen. The American Legion gets as much respect, if not more than any other organization we are working with, and we're happy to be working with you."

Pathways to Housing, a provider in Washington, tries to provide homeless veterans with housing immediately, "then wrap them around highly individualized services," according to Christy Repress, the organization's director of programs and development. But not all veterans need services; some only need help from their comrades-in-arms. "Peer support in the veterans world is really important.

Repress said that, while Pathways frequently adapts its program to accommodate VA initiatives, "There is still this challenge of letting veterans know about our services. So we are always looking for better ways to get connected locally."

The representative for the Business & Professional Women's Foundation, Mary Moorhouse, said that once a woman veteran becomes homeless, it takes about four to seven years for them to manage their lives successfully again. Using focus groups, her organization found out that many women veterans "don't walk into The American Legion or the VFW. They don't walk into male-dominated places. Half of them don't think they are veterans."And the other thing we've heard is that they don't know how to ask for help. They've been taught to be very self-reliant: sleeping on friends' couches, sleeping in cars. We need to address the distinct needs of women vets -- the custody issues of women who may lose their children because of their homeless status."

Moorhouse said that any system model "has to work with the homeless veteran in the center of it as the customer," and that more community-based programs are needed, "where they can go, without going to the local VA medical center. VA has to be involved with all of this, but it's got to be easier for them to see a welcoming community. That's what we owe to them."

-30-Media contact: Marty Callaghan, mcallaghan@legion.org or 202-263-5758/202-215-8644.