Tackling the problem of homelessness among veterans

On a visit to a Vermont homeless shelter for veterans, Maj. L. Tammy Duckworth met a man who lived there with his wife and two young children. She asked if he was looking for a job.

No, he told her. He was a member of the Vermont National Guard, and he was getting ready to deploy. And he was excited, she said: His family could stay in the shelter while he was deployed and save up his pay so they could have a home when he got back.

Duckworth, L. Tammy 4-18-11

Maj. L. Tammy Duckworth

“We are all dishonored when a veteran sleeps on the same streets that he or she has defended,” Duckworth, the assistant secretary for public and intergovernmental affairs at the Department of Veterans Affairs, said in Hartford Monday. “We are all dishonored when a veteran’s family has to live in a shelter while he or she is out fighting for us. We need to fix that.”

There are 76,000 homeless veterans in the U.S., including an estimated 462 in Connecticut, and Duckworth is part of an effort to get the number to zero by 2015. It’s part of a larger federal plan, called Opening Doors, that also has goals of ending chronic homelessness by 2015 and homelessness among families, youth and children by 2020.

“I know it is ambitious,” she said. “But when we started, we had 131,000 veterans on the streets of this nation. A year ago, we were at 107,000 homeless veterans on the streets of this nation. And as of April, we are now at 76,000 homeless veterans on the streets of this nation.”

Duckworth, a member of the Illinois Army National Guard, flew combat missions in Iraq and lost both her legs and partial use of one arm after the helicopter she was co-piloting was ambushed. She later served as director of the Illinois Department of Veterans’ Affairs. Duckworth spoke in Hartford as part of a forum hosted by the Partnership for Strong Communities.

Public and private sector programs have shown what works in addressing homelessness on a large scale, U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan, who chairs the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness, wrote in a preface to the Opening Doors plan. A workgroup on homelessness among veterans identified several strategies that have been effective, including “stand downs” that offer one-stop access to services for homeless or needy veterans over one or several days; “safe havens” that help people who do not want to go to shelters to leave the streets; transitional housing; and supportive housing that includes case management and services to address mental health, substance abuse, employment and health care needs.

The Opening Doors plan aims to expand access to stable, affordable housing, improve economic stability and health among people who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless, and move homeless services to a “crisis response” system that prevents people from becoming homeless and quickly returns people who are homeless to stable housing.

It also aims to align resources toward the same goals. Duckworth emphasized the importance of collaboration between government agencies and community organizations and said the VA cannot solve the problem on its own.

“If VA wanted to, we could probably build a bunch of buildings and just warehouse people in them. But that’s not the solution,” Duckworth said. “You on the front lines here are the ones that we need to partner with.”

Veterans are more likely than nonveterans to be homeless, and those who are often have unique challenges. They are more likely to live outdoors and experience chronic homelessness.

Duckworth cited what she called an “astounding” figure: 90 percent of veterans who become homeless do so after living on their own, with no family or community support. Overall, that’s true of only 40 percent of people who are homeless.

Ending homelessness among veterans, she said, is about preventing the “downward spiral” that leads them there.

“It starts with a veteran who on leaving the military is going back to a situation where there is no family support or back into communities of poverty that they came from when they first enlisted in the military in the first place,” she said. “Men and women who don’t have a plan for what they’re going to do after they get out.”

Among veterans who have been chronically homeless, Duckworth said, most have three conditions simultaneously: an untreated mental health problem, a health issue, and substance abuse that began either before or soon after becoming homeless.

But the demographics of homeless veterans are changing, she said. Younger veterans who served in combat are increasingly becoming homeless. So are women, many of whom have children, and can face greater barriers to getting services. Shelters and community groups that work with homeless women and children do not typically ask women if they served in uniform, missing an opportunity to connect them with services available to veterans, Duckworth said.

“And the women themselves will often say, ‘Oh no, I’m not a veteran. I didn’t serve in combat, or I served in the Coast Guard, or I only served stateside,'” she said, adding that part of the work to end homelessness involves educating community groups about what questions to ask.

Veterans are the most highly qualified employees anyone could hire, Duckworth said, pointing to the high stakes of doing their jobs well while serving.

“How many of you, when you wrote a help wanted ad, were able to put in there, ‘needed: clerk, needed: receptionist, must be willing to guarantee quality of work with life?'” she asked the audience.

“And yet these are the same men and women who have such a hard time finding work when they get home,” she added.

After Duckworth spoke, a panel of experts discussed efforts to serve veterans in Connecticut. Several spoke of the difficulty of making sure that veterans know what services are available to them.

“I sometimes believe that our veterans are the last people to ask for themselves,” state Department of Veterans’ Affairs Commissioner Linda Schwartz said. “Generally someone will suggest, or their backs are against the wall and they’re in such difficulties that they have nowhere to turn. That is not a deterrent for us, that is just a bigger challenge.”

Speakers said part of the problem is convincing veterans to accept services or to seek help. Part of it is needing the resources to provide more services, including additional supportive housing vouchers. And part is making sure veterans know what resources exist.

Schwartz suggested creating a directory of services available to veterans.

The state has a 24-hour military support program hotline for service members and their families.  It’s funded with money from the sale of state property, but Schwartz said that without another source of funding, the money for it could run out.

Margaret Middleton, executive director of the Connecticut Veterans Legal Center, suggested having a pilot program for veterans to have access to lawyers. Among her clients, she said, having a criminal record is the largest barrier to having a stable income.

Schwartz and Brig. Gen. Daniel J. McHale of the Connecticut Army National Guard described an effort to ease the transition home for members of one unit, the 102nd Infantry, that began before they left Afghanistan.

After the unit’s previous deployment, McHale said, there were 85 arrests within 90 days. This time, he worked to gather information about the men and women who would be returning. Before they returned to Connecticut, he learned that of 600 soldiers, 227 were unemployed, 27 were homeless, and 15 or 16 had serious legal issues.

For the returning soldiers without homes, veterans service organizations prepared housing–furnished down to the teaspoon, McHale said–in Rocky Hill. The state Department of Labor’s Office of Veterans’ Workforce Development set up a job fair for them, and legal services were available for those who needed them.

Schwartz said stand downs, which she helped establish in the state in 1992, are effective. Last year, more than 1,300 homeless and needy veterans attended one in Rocky Hill. They were able to apply for jobs and get access to services some didn’t know they were eligible for.

“If I could, I’d have a stand down every month,” she said.