Number of homeless veterans in county rapidly dropping
— Years of refocused efforts to address homelessness among American veterans is beginning to pay big dividends, according to statistics released by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
Statewide, the VA Maryland Health Care System saw a decrease of 25 percent in recorded homeless veterans during the January Point-in-Time survey compared to the previous year, dropping from 568 to 427. When looking specifically at Cecil County, the decrease jumps to 42 percent, dropping from 76 to 44.
Chris Buser, the chief of social work service at the VA Maryland Health Care System, said the system’s recent successes are the result of an increase in staffing and resources dedicated in the fight to end homelessness among those who have served the country.
“When I first came to the VA in 1999, our homeless program consisted of two people — one each at our Baltimore and Perry Point campuses — who would do outreach and find veterans to hook into our resources,” he said. “From 2008 to present under the Obama administration, a great focus has been placed on homeless veterans. Today, we have 73 positions in our homeless program.”
That increase in manpower includes social workers, nurse case managers, psychologists, occupational therapists and outreach advocates, among others. Staffing alone could not help stem the tide, however, and an investment in housing vouchers and grants has helped tremendously, Buser noted.
In 2010, the Obama administration and the VA unveiled a plan to address homelessness of veterans. At the centerpiece of that initiative is the HUDVeterans Affairs Supportive Housing (VASH) program. It combines the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s housing choice voucher rental assistance for homeless veterans with case management and clinical services provided by the VA. Since 2008, a
total of 85,000 lifetime vouchers have been awarded.
Through the HUD-VASH program, a housing subsidy is paid to the landlord directly by the local public housing authority on behalf of the participating veteran. The veteran then pays the difference between the actual rent charged by the landlord and the amount subsidized by the program. The case management includes all manner of services, from physical and mental health to occupational therapy and addiction treatment.
Today, a total of 1,000 VASH vouchers are available to veterans in Maryland, with 95 specifically set aside for Cecil County. Each year, Congress typically approves between 75 and 100 new vouchers to continue helping more veterans.
Also available to VA case managers are grant-funded placements, where a veteran can be housed for up to two years at a home in the community, although most likely stay three to six months until they are moved to a different VA program or are helped back onto their feet. The grant programs help case managers intervene in emergency situations.
“The goal is find out what brought you into homelessness and what we need to put into place so you can exit successfully,” Buser said. “We want to get a veteran to a point of selfsufficiency.”
Both the HUD-VASH and grant-funded programs are feature points of the VA’s “housing first” model, which looks to shelter homeless veterans in conjunction with connecting them to needed services.
While some have raised doubts about the accuracy of the annual Point-in-Time survey statistics, Buser notes that they only represent a singular weekend and some are probably not recognized, but officials strive to account for as many veterans as possible. Shelters report logs over two nights in January, the nation’s coldest month, while teams divide areas into a grid, visiting known homeless encampments and searching streets and alleys. Detailed statistics aside, Buser said he feeling confident that the numbers show the actual trend being seen out in communities.
While the Obama administration set a goal of ending veteran homelessness, it’s a goal that remains to be elusive. Buser admits that it is a difficult end to achieve and relies upon equal parts reaction, which the VA has improved, and prevention, of which transitional and emergency help remain growing parts of the VA system.
“How do we start working with our veterans who are being discharged so we know about post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, substance abuse issues, etc.?” he said. “How do we intervene before it costs them their family, their job or their housing. It’s kind of like stacking Swiss cheese; every piece may have a hole but if you stack enough pieces you can’t drop anything straight through.”
If you know of a veteran in need housing assistance, have them call the National Call Center for Homeless Veterans at 1-877-4AID-VET.