Despite efforts since 2010, when the U.S. Department Veterans Affairs launched its plan to end veterans’ homelessness, Connecticut’s numbers have dropped less than 15 percent, now totaling about 340 – while the demand for services is growing.
Overall, more than 1,000 state veterans have sought services, such as housing assistance, counseling, and job placement, from the VA homeless system in the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, up from 400 five years ago, said Preston Maynard, director of homeless programs for the Connecticut VA.
“Our work is far from over,” Maynard said.
In response to the slow progress, a coalition of government, social service and business people developed a strategic plan outlining specific actions to acquire more safe housing for homeless veterans and help them achieve independence. It strives to coordinate programs to avoid duplication, fill gaps in services, and step up efforts to get homeless veterans jobs.
Veterans’ homelessness is “a really hard problem,” said Greg Behrman of Fairfield, director of the Connecticut Heroes Project, who is spearheading the plan, which he hopes, will put “a real dent” in the numbers by 2015.
“We’re not ever going to be able to say that no veteran will experience homelessness. If someone loses a job and loses a house, it can happen in the blink of an eye,” said Behrman. He explained that the plan’s goal is to get that person into “a safe home or a path toward that” within weeks.
In Connecticut this year, there were 340 homeless veterans counted on a single night in January during the Point in Time Count, which the national VA uses to assess the veterans’ homeless population. Of those, 38 percent were chronically homeless. The count is of veterans in shelters and transitional housing as well as those living on the street or other places not intended as housing.
Nationally, the reduction is higher with the number decreasing 24.2 percent from 2010 to January 2013, for a total of 57,849 homeless veterans, according to the most recent figures.
“At the current rate of progress, the goal of ending veterans homelessness will not be achieved by 2015,” according to a report by the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness.
The federal government is pouring billions of dollars into housing and support services for homeless veterans and their families. One reason more people are seeking help is that outreach workers are finding more homeless and at risk veterans and bringing them into the system, Maynard said.
In the 2013 fiscal year, the National Homeless Call Center referred more than 450 calls from state veterans to the Connecticut VA, about 100 more than the previous year. A capacity of 190 veterans filled emergency and transitional housing “on any given night,” Maynard said.
Veterans who become homeless may be substance abusers, have undiagnosed mental health problems and brain injuries, and debilitating physical problems.
“Finding a stable job with wages good enough to support a market rent is a difficult task for anyone, no less someone who is homeless,” said Maynard, pointing out that a one-bedroom apartment in Connecticut costs about $1,100 a month.
“We have a lot to do, certainly, in two years,” Maynard said of the 2015 goal.
Worsening the situation, the federal food stamp program, which helps more than 900,000 veterans nationally, was cut by $5 billion on Nov. 1, because stimulus funding expired. More cuts in food stamps are expected in the farm bill pending in Congress.
“It’s frustrating and it does not help,” said Behrman. “These are vital support services that people desperately need, particularly folks who are at risk of homelessness,” he said.
Meanwhile, Behrman’s organization is raising private money to help stem homelessness among veterans. So far, $60,000 has been donated to help veterans pay apartment security deposits and to hire at least one employment coordinator for homeless veterans.
A pilot program is starting this month to help veterans who live in federally-subsidized apartments find jobs that would pay enough for them to live independently and thus make more rent subsidies available for others. The Department of Housing and Urban Development – VA Supportive Housing program, (HUD-VASH), serves a population that is not easily employable — chronically homeless people who have disabilities and need ongoing support to live in their apartments successfully. And, caseworkers “don’t want to give the sense to those really in need, that they’re pushing them out,” Behrman said.
Under HUD-VASH, veterans who earn up to $26,500 a year can receive rent subsidies and services, like visits to ensure they are taking medication and support groups. The state has been allocated 650 federal rent vouchers for veterans, an addition of 210 in the last year and a half, Maynard said.
On another front, Behrman is working with Gov. Dannel Malloy’s office to locate unused state property, especially at the State Veterans Home and Hospital in Rocky Hill, that can be used to house more veterans. The strategic plan also calls for opening a halfway house for veterans released from jail.
“It’s not about vast new resources or construction projects that will take forever,” he said.
Nationally, most homeless veterans are over the age of 50. According to the Interagency Homelessness Council report, from 2010 to 2012, their numbers increased from 47 percent to 52 percent of the overall homeless veteran population, raising the potential of increased medical costs. Homeless veterans younger than age 30, increased from 8.4 percent to 9.1 percent due to more vets returning from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, the report says.
Young veterans with major physical injuries, such as loss of legs, receive full disability from VA Healthcare, while those seeking homeless services often have issues that are undiagnosed, like traumatic brain injury, Maynard said.
The council’s report states that half of the veteran homeless population is in the largest states — California, Florida, Texas, and New York.
Developers of the Connecticut strategic plan consider it to be a national model designed to coordinate efforts in housing, employment, transportation, education, military and social services.
In a simple step, the strategic plan group has developed a sheet for veterans to bring to job interviews that lists incentives employers can get for hiring veterans and answers concerns about hiring National Guard and Reservists whose work schedules can be interrupted.
Veterans’ advocates have cited employment challenges including competition for jobs in a tough job market, veterans who aren’t prepared to work and lack skills in seeking employment, and concerns among employers about hiring people with issues like Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
People interested in contributing to the effort to reduce veterans’ homelessness in Connecticut should go to ctheroesproject.org for information, Behrman said.
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