Helter Shelter

Written by Niki D'Andrea Category: Hot Topics Issue: June 2014
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Phoenix received national accolades for ending chronic homelessness among veterans. But did we take a victory lap too soon?

John Conneally joined the Navy in 1976 and spent five and a half years aboard an ocean-going mine sweeper. After his service, he enrolled at ASU and joined the Navy Reserve for an additional five years. It was 1981, and the future looked bright. He went on to have a career as a computer programmer, got married and had children, and bought a house and a boat.

But 14 years after his discharge from the military, everything fell apart. “I was once a high-dollar COBOL programmer, but when Y2K ended, guys like me became a dime a dozen. I lost my home, my wife, my kids, my truck, my boat and my dog in a few months,” Conneally, 55, says. “I remember standing in the Salt River bed one night, owning only the clothes I was wearing, and screaming at God.”

Conneally wasn’t alone as a soldier in misfortune. According to the National League of Cities, 82,000 veterans live in Phoenix – and roughly 13 percent of them are homeless, according to a recent study conducted by the Morrison Institute for Public Policy at ASU. The Arizona Department of Veterans’ Services estimates one in five homeless adults in Arizona is a veteran – a rate more than twice the national average. Getting veterans off the streets has become a priority both nationally – with President Obama declaring all homeless veterans should be housed by 2015 – and locally, with Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton working with a plethora of local groups to end chronic homelessness among Valley veterans through a highly praised program called Project H3 Vets. After identifying and housing 220 chronically homeless veterans last year, Stanton’s office announced there was a roof over the head of every chronically homeless vet in the city, and national media declared Phoenix was the first city to “end”/“eradicate”/“solve” its homeless veteran problem. Even the White House issued a statement with the headline “Phoenix Reduces Its Population of Chronically Homeless Veterans to Zero.”

But there’s been tension in the midst of the celebration. As it turns out, those 220 chronically homeless vets were just a small segment of the city’s homeless veteran population. U.S. Vets, the nation’s largest nonprofit serving homeless veterans, estimates they still serve around 1,700 homeless veterans in the Valley. Spokespeople at local nonprofits that provide services to homeless vets say the problem is far from solved.

Mayor Stanton concedes “we’ve got a long way to go” in the mission to completely eradicate homelessness among all veterans, but continues to emphasize the city’s success in sheltering the “chronically homeless” (defined as a veteran who has spent a year or more on the streets or has experienced four or more episodes of homelessness in a three-year period).

Project H3 Vets is being viewed as a model for ending chronic homelessness among veterans in other cities, and, Stanton says, the model will see further use here. “We ended chronic homelessness among veterans already, and now we want to end chronic homelessness among all populations,” he says. “So the model we used to end chronic homelessness among vets is the exact model we’re going to use to end chronic homelessness among the general population. I want to make it clear to anybody that might think we’re overstating the case, I would argue just the opposite. We’ve been very clear about what we’ve accomplished, but we’ve also been very clear about how far we still have to go.”

But that “way to go” – both in terms of distance and method – looks very different depending on where one is standing.

No Place Like Homeless
How does a military veteran become homeless? It’s different for everybody, but the downward spiral generally begins with difficulty in suddenly returning to a “normal” civilian life after spending months or years in a war zone. “Retired police, for example, continue to suffer from ‘hyper vigilance’ years after they have retired. Vets too,” John Conneally says. “One cannot simply let go of something that kept us alive for a long time. It’s not like changing our socks. All this stuff piles up and, coupled with the economy, some people just forget how to function.”

Data show veterans are at a slightly higher risk for homelessness than the general population, for a handful of reasons, including physical disability, mental health issues and substance abuse problems. In particular, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) places people at an increased risk for homelessness.  

John Scott, executive director of the Phoenix branch of U.S. Vets, is a Marine Corps veteran with a background in psychology and a master’s degree in social work from UCLA. He had firsthand experience working with veterans suffering from PTSD at the Long Beach Veterans Administration. He says many veterans struggle to find work after being discharged, and live off their G.I. Bills until the money runs out. When that happens, “they start falling into that cycle of homelessness,” a situation often agitated by alcohol and substance abuse, and further compounded by conditions like PTSD. “When folks are dealing with PTSD, you’ve got the military culture that says, ‘You can handle it. Do it on your own,’” Scott says. “So you’ve got a lot of veterans that are out there struggling every day to make it, and they’re trying to combat and battle their symptoms. The number one way that our veterans are combatting those symptoms is through drugs and alcohol.”

Struggles with substances are one barrier to housing. Residence in many housing projects is often contingent on passing drug tests; if someone fails a test, they could lose their housing. Conversely, Mayor Stanton’s Project H3 Vets initiative employs a “housing first” model. “If someone has been on the streets battling a substance abuse issue for a long time, and they get placed in a ‘housing first’ situation and they fall off the wagon, if you will, or abuse again, they don’t get removed from housing. They’re able to stay,” Stanton says. “They can have the confidence that even if they aren’t able to stay 100 percent sober, they’re allowed to stay and continue with their treatment, so that they can continue on their path to sobriety.”

Project H3 Vets began in November 2011, with volunteers conducting surveys of every homeless veteran they could find at shelters, transitional housing facilities, the annual street counts done for Housing and Urban Development (HUD) programs, and Arizona StandDown, an annual three-day “all-call” event to assist homeless and at-risk vets with everything from housing to driver’s licenses from an onsite Motor Vehicle Division office. Using the surveys of about a thousand homeless vets and assessing them according to the Vulnerability Index (see sidebar on page 28), the project had identified 220 “chronically homeless” veterans by March 2013 and rapidly placed them in housing through the use of HUD-VASH vouchers. All 220 veterans had roofs over their heads by Christmas. “That [focus on the chronically homeless] was for a variety of reasons, one being they were the ones most likely to perish, because of health conditions and stuff like that. So finding adequate, suitable housing as quickly as possible definitely decreased the amount of deaths of veterans that were living on the street,” Scott says. “The idea was, if we can go and target the chronically homeless veterans in the community and we can get them all housed, the implications are we can do that with the standard veteran population.”

Phoenix spent more than $6.5 million in federal grants to battle homelessness in 2013; that year, the city council approved an additional $1.8 million in city general funds for the cause. Things are getting better. Homeless Management Information System (HMIS) data indicate the percentage of homeless veterans in Arizona decreased from 20 percent in 2011 to 13 percent in 2012. Today, “less than four percent of the street population are veterans. That’s down from 30 percent ten years ago,” says Brad Bridwell, event coordinator at Arizona StandDown and director of community development for Cloudbreak Communities, a developer which provides housing for homeless veterans in Arizona, California, Nevada, Texas and Hawaii. “Right now, inside the emergency shelter system, veterans are representing only about five percent of the population, and their median length of stay in shelters is 14 days.”    

For Mayor Stanton, it’s imperative to continue helping veterans get off the streets. “First and foremost, it’s what we owe our fellow human beings who may be going through tough times,” he says. “The attitude for myself is, ‘But for the grace of God go I.’ That person that we’re helping that happens to be homeless, that could be me... on a human level, it’s the right thing to do.”


An Ongoing Battle
Methodist minister Scott Ritchey was one of the local activists who thought the celebration party for “ending” homelessness in Phoenix was premature. Ritchey, who runs a day program for homeless seniors in Downtown Phoenix called Justa Center, issued this statement in March: “No one would celebrate the end of chronic homelessness among veterans in Phoenix more than those of us at Justa Center, but unfortunately, it is just not true.”

Ritchey went on to write, “Though the end of chronic homelessness among a certain segment of  veterans in Phoenix is true, it is part of a much larger story... today, about 30 percent of Justa Center members are homeless veterans who have fallen through the cracks or are dealing with complicated conditions such as dementia, schizophrenia, and felony backgrounds.”

Former Navy man Conneally would agree. The formerly homeless veteran helped found the Madison Street Veterans Association (MSVA) in Downtown Phoenix with 13 other homeless veterans back in 2008, after one veteran had his shoes stolen off his feet while sleeping in the corner of the Men’s Overflow Shelter. He’s now manager of MANA (Marine, Army, Navy, Air Force) House, which provides temporary housing for 49 vets through the MSVA. He emphasizes there are still plenty of homeless veterans in need, not just in Phoenix but statewide. “Serious problems with homeless vets continue in both Flagstaff and Kingman,” he says. “We are involved with groups in both cities.”

John Scott of U.S. Vets says they house 259 veterans on a daily basis, in a mix of both transitional and permanent housing. The Chaplaincy for the Homeless in Phoenix estimates it served 431 homeless veterans last year. Arizona StandDown drew 1,757 veterans this past March.

Still, the existence of homeless and at-risk veterans on the streets of Phoenix shouldn’t diminish the feat of housing 220 chronically homeless veterans, says Mayor Stanton, who points out that many groups and organizations came together to achieve the goals of Project H3 Vets (they include the Arizona Coalition to End Homelessness, U.S. Vets, Arizona StandDown and the National League of Cities). “Never have I seen a group of people come together [like this] to achieve a difficult yet important goal,” Stanton says. “Never have I seen them come together so seamlessly, and to work together as a team on this critical issue. It really is important. It’s an inspiring thing for me to see. It shows that government can work.”

“You know, the media will run with, ‘You guys ended homelessness,’” Scott says. “Well no, we didn’t do that. We housed every chronically homeless veteran that we were aware of through the community by doing point-of-time counts and stuff like that. We know we have the capability of serving other chronically homeless vets that come in, and furthermore, we’ve developed enough housing inventory and resource measures so that we know we can work with all of the other homeless veterans that may not fit that ‘chronic’ status.”

Likewise, Stanton views the accomplishments of Project H3 Vets as a powerful opening salvo in the ongoing battle against vet homelessness. “We should celebrate the fact that we have accomplished this important goal of finding permanent supportive housing for 220 chronically homeless veterans,” Stanton says. “But myself and everyone I know – every single person I know who’s been involved in this effort – we’re not resting on our laurels. Just the opposite. We’ve got a lot of work to do.”

Part of that work is finding or creating more housing options for homeless veterans. “There’s a finite amount of affordable housing that’s appropriate for them. We’ve had to, in some cases, re-orient some of our housing programs and policies to be geared more specifically to the veteran community,” Stanton says. “There’s always an issue about allowing additional units to be be built, and where they’re going to be located, and some of the neighborhood issues associated with that. So there’s always a challenge in trying to generate more affordable housing, particularly with the housing first model.”

Though the wars overseas are drawing down, homeless assistance for veterans figures to be a growing need for years to come. Data show veterans are out of the military for an average of six years before becoming homeless, meaning that our next generation of at-risk veterans have already come home. A national report done by the Institute of Medicine found 76 percent of Vietnam War veterans reported not becoming homeless for at least ten years after serving. “They didn’t come home and just hit the streets,” Brad Bridwell of Arizona StandDown says. “Generally, it’s associated with the time that it takes in order to burn out your family and social network resources. Most of us rely on family and friends when we’re struggling. When you continue to struggle and you keep cycling downward, family and friends start to burn out, and that resource goes away. When that resource goes away, then a person is at extreme vulnerability for homelessness.”

Like many involved in the struggle to end veteran homelessness, John Scott says the number of veterans at risk will greatly increase as soldiers return from the Middle East. “We’re starting to see a lot more OEF/OIF (Operation Enduring Freedom/Operation Iraqi Freedom) vets,” Scott says. “I think over the next five or six years, we’ll get a steady increase of those OEF/OIF veterans, and the reason I say that is because, probably the number one deterrent right now or preventative measure that returning veterans have from becoming homeless is the G.I. Bill. A lot of veterans who don’t have a job or can’t find a job are using their G.I. Bill to cover housing expenses.”

So how is Phoenix going to meet the demand of a new slew of veterans at high risk for homelessness? “The reality is, we just don’t know. Back in the Vietnam era... if homelessness was going to become a problem, it started surfacing about six years after [discharge],” Bridwell says. “What we know is, of the Iraq and Afghanistan-era population of veterans... those who have become homeless, they become homeless much faster, at about twice the speed. So six years after discharge becomes three years after discharge. So the risk is higher... we’ve been in this thing for 10 years. There’s been a lot of deployments and re-deployments, and we’ve got a lot of folks that are still in the military that are yet to discharge. And if the 3-6 year theory holds, then we’re still a few years from understanding what the true impact is.”

Vetting Solutions
Despite the difficulties, those on the front lines in the battle against veteran homelessness say it’s perfectly possible for Phoenix to achieve President Obama’s goal of housing every homeless veteran by 2015. “I think we’re definitely on track,” John Scott says.

“Yeah, I think we can absolutely do it,” agrees Brad Bridwell. “It takes a lot in a community and a lot of commitment, but I think the resources are there, and if they’re all strategically put into play and you have strong local catalysts or governance for that, I think we’ll see a strong outcome.”

On the street level, more money is always needed. MANA House manager John Conneally says the MSVA is “constantly looking for Daddy Warbucks to help us solve several long-term issues, but alas, he is nowhere to be found,” adding that without the assistance of groups like the American Legion, the VFW, the Jewish War Veterans and the Legion Riders, “we simply could not operate.”

Bridwell says one thing that’s made him hopeful is the advent and spread of veteran court systems. “City of Phoenix has one, but we’re seeing veteran courts sprout up all across the nation, and basically, they’re diversion-type courts, where a veteran is identified and diverted to a specialty court where VA and other services are all there to wrap services around the vet and keep them from going to jail and getting whatever symptomology is going on treated and under control early,” Bridwell says. “If those interventions work, then we should see a reduction in incidents of homelessness among Iraq and Afghanistan-era veterans. But all that to say: We put a lot of systems in place. We don’t know if they’re going to work yet, until we get a little further down the road.”

Mayor Stanton says he’s in it for the long haul, and reiterates he wants to use the Project H3 Vets model to end general homelessness. “The model that was followed, the partnership that was created to end chronic homelessness among the veteran population, is the exact model we can use to expand upon to end chronic homelessness among families with children and other populations,” he says. “And that is [housing first]. Because before someone can solve the other issues in their lives, they’ve got to have a stable place.”  

And the goals are getting bigger as the stakes get higher. “[Financial services company] USAA did a study and said of all the cities in the country, Phoenix was the second-best city for veterans. And I’m not satisfied with that. I want to be number one,” Stanton says. “So Pittsburgh – look out, here we come. Phoenix is going to pass you up. Number two is not acceptable to me, so we’re pushing hard to become number one."

The Vulnerability Index
The City of Phoenix used the following Vulnerability Index to identify the 220 chronically homeless vets housed under the Project H3 Vets initiative. For veterans who had been homeless for at least six months, one or more of the following markers placed them at increased risk of death:

>> More than three hospitalizations or emergency room visits in a year
>> More than three emergency room visits in the previous three months
>> Age 60 or older
>> Cirrhosis of the liver
>> End-stage renal disease
>> History of frostbite, immersion foot or hypothermia
>> Tri-morbidity (co-occurring psychiatric, substance abuse and chronic medical condition)

Source: 100khomes.org