Mixed success aiding homeless Vets

VA, local agencies report progress, while critics remain skeptical. A five-year plan becomes six.

Credit: David Tulis

Credit: David Tulis

Log on to myAJC.com to see a photo essay of how the Furniture Bank of Metro Atlanta helps homeless veterans with jobs and training.

In November 2009, then-Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki announced a plan to end homelessness among U.S. veterans.

"President Obama and I are personally committed to ending homelessness among Veterans within the next five years," Shinseki said to a group of homeless veterans advocates. "Those who have served this nation as veterans should never find themselves on the streets, living without care and without hope."

Since then, the VA and its community partners have helped secure housing and services for tens of thousands of veterans, while scandals forced Shinseki to resign last spring. But the VA won’t meet Shinseki’s five-year deadline to end homelessness for veterans, and experts question if the goal is realistic.

With little fanfare or public acknowledgement, the VA’s five-year plan has now become a six-year plan, to be completed at the close of 2015, according to records and public statements reviewed by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Meanwhile, the problem of homeless veterans remains a serious national problem, particularly in Atlanta, where homeless veterans comprise a disproportionate share of the homeless population. Nationally, veterans account for about 11 percent of the nation’s the 442,723 homeless adults. But they represent 21 percent of the homeless population in Atlanta, according to Protip Biswas, vice president for homelessness and community outreach at the United Way of Greater Atlanta.

The VA has increased spending into the billions of dollars in recent years on programs for homeless veterans. The agency had FY 2015 budget request of roughly $1.6 billion for programs aiding the homeless, an increase of 17.8 percent over the 2014 budget. U.S. Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., whose House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs has been hounding VA leaders on a wide array of management and performance scandals, has scheduled a Dec. 11 hearing on the VA’s homeless programs.

In a statement to the AJC, Miller said the VA’s goal of ending homelessness by 2015 was “admirable,” but he questioned how well the programs were working.

“VA’s homelessness prevention efforts have resulted in an incredible outlay of resources but few specifics as to the program’s effectiveness, outcomes and sustainability,” Miller told the AJC. “In order to be successful in the long term, VA’s homelessness prevention program must address root causes of the problem, such as employment and mental health. Right now, it’s unclear if VA’s program is doing much more than just providing temporary housing.”

Still, advocates for the homeless say the number of homeless veterans is declining, from about 74,770 in 2010 to 49,933 this past January, a drop of 33 percent. A 2013 count identified 983 homeless veterans in Atlanta and 822 in other parts of Georgia.

VA officials say the declines are strong evidence that the agency’s mix of housing assistance for veterans and community-based services is working. In fiscal year 2014, the agency said 71,500 homeless and at-risk vets received permanent housing through VA programs.

“Our goal is a systematic end to homelessness, which means there are no veterans sleeping on our streets and every veteran has access to permanent housing,” said Gina Jackson, a VA spokeswoman in Washington, D.C. “The ultimate goal is that all Veterans have permanent, sustainable housing with access to high-quality health care and other supportive services.”

Jackson said the VA will declare victory when there are no vets on the streets and no more than 12,500 at any one time who are making the transition from homelessness to “housing stability.”

“The reality of no Veteran living unsheltered is something we can and will achieve,” she said.

It’s doubtful that the number of homeless veterans will ever hit zero because even as veterans move off the street and into housing, others will become homeless, said Joshua Stewart, assistant director of policy for the National Coalition For Homeless Veterans in Washington, D.C.

The difference now, he said, is that many more communities are equipped to act quickly and help veterans find housing.

“We’re living in a different world than we were five years ago,” said Stewart.

Vets helping vets

In Atlanta, Biswas said the commitment from the VA has helped local organizations expand programs in the past few years. He said setting a goal to end homelessness has changed their strategy from one of managing homelessness to searching for more lasting solutions.

“When you focus on ending homelessness the way you approach the project changes,” said Biswas. “It’s not just providing services. We have to move the person into the housing. We believe in that. Will we get down to zero? That’s not the point. The point is, Are we acting as if we are trying to get down to zero?”

The strategy includes finding housing, but also helping veterans with case management, jobs, counseling, substance abuse and accessing benefits from the VA. To that end, the United Way deploys a team of peer specialists — most of them former homeless veterans — to conduct outreach work.

The former vets go into homeless camps and other areas where the homeless gather to forge relationships and encourage them to seek help.

“One of the veterans told me it’s like I’m on recon, I’m out saving my brothers,” said Kinte Rollins, who oversees the veterans outreach team for the United Way.

“I think we’ve already made a big dent,” he said. “I can tell you right now it’s getting harder and harder to find veterans downtown.”

He said the concentration of homeless veterans in Atlanta was due in part to the lack of services in areas outside the core city. The outreach team has been extending their reach to outlying counties where the homeless tend to congregate in camps, often in wooded areas.

Aaron Waldron, one of the United Way’s peer specialists, knows the problem first hand. When he left the Army in 2012 after a tour in Iraq, he was suffering with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

He had lost contact with family and the PTSD made college in Florida a struggle. He lived homeless for about a year, sleeping on the couches of friends when he could.

He said many veterans face similar travails, including struggles to find work, either because of job discrimination or because combat skills don’t always translate to the workplace. He said it wasn’t until he got plugged into the VA and received help that he was ready to function day-to-day.

He said the military often fails to educate returning veterans about the services available to them. When they encounter a crisis, they are often not aware of services that could help them avoid homelessness, he said.

“A lot the them don’t know,” Waldron said. “That’s why when we are out there (we) try to tell them … these are the benefits out there.”

Such community-based programs have helped nearly 100,000 veterans and more than 25,000 children of veterans through fiscal year 2013, according to the VA.

The VA in Atlanta expects to meet the goal of ending veterans homelessness by the end of 2015, according to April Edwards, clinical director of the local VA program. She said the local VA system has doubled its staff since 2008 and now has 132 employees to assist homeless vets. The number of housing vouchers for veterans has also increased, she said.

This year a new facility opened at Fort McPherson to house homeless veterans and provide services. One challenge the agency faces is forging more partnerships with private landlords willing to take veterans, some who may have criminal records or other issues after years of homelessness.

The local VA, like others across the country, is seeing shifts in the demographics of the homeless population.

“What we’re starting to see is a lot of young veterans,” Edwards said. “Many have had tours in Iraq and Afghanistan….They served our country. They deserve basic services. Housing is a basic need.”

‘You don’t know to ask for help’

Ron Durbin never thought he’d be homeless until life’s circumstances pushed the 48-year-old Army veteran to the streets this summer.

Job troubles and other issues at home led to a separation from his wife. He found himself sleeping in his car, but after a day of that he turned for help. He got plugged into a temporary housing program through the United Way and an internship program with the nonprofit’s partner, the Furniture Bank of Metro Atlanta.

After he completes work in the non-profit’s warehouse, he will get his commercial driver’s license to become a truck driver.

“I had a jaded view of what homeless was,” he said. “I changed that attitude quickly. This program did save me. I was at the point of, What do I do?”

Like the general population, many veterans who are homeless struggle with substance abuse, a job loss or a family crisis. Kevin Hall, a retired Army sergeant first class, sees many of them come through the doors of the veterans program he leads at The Salvation Army downtown.

The program provides drug treatment and life skills. The veterans typically spend 9 to 12 months in the program and live in a barracks-like shelter as they get back on their feet with jobs or education.

Many of them are initially distrustful of the VA. His first goal is to get them enrolled in the VA system and get the benefits they’ve earned. He said people may have stereotypes when they see homeless vets on the street or living in the woods, but they would be surprised what these vets have to offer.

“Over half of them would do anything in the world to assist you, and they have skills,” Hall said. “A lot of folks may look at them out there and say, ‘What’s going on with you?’ But they have talent.”

Growing up, Alcedric Jackson dreamed of being a fighter pilot. Instead, he became an Army paratrooper and a helicopter crew chief. The end of his military career came when a parachute jump went bad.

Years later, he had flashbacks and vivid dreams that had all the hallmarks of PTSD. He coped by drinking. He moved to Atlanta in May to attend school to improve his job skills. A turn of events led him to lose his housing and he ended up homeless without a job.

He found the Salvation Army program by word of mouth from other veterans on the street. He’s now back at school, has stopped drinking and is starting to make future plans.

Asked why there are disproportionate numbers of homeless veterans, he said some of it is the training that allows them to survive where others might not.

“A lot of it is mental health,” he said. “When you are sick you don’t know to ask for help. You’ve got those components working with each other you are going to have a lot of homeless vets out there. You are not trained to ask for help.”