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City Limits WEEKLY
Week of: February 12, 2007
Number: 574


A city initiative to find real shelter for vets without homes is making progress. > By Eileen Markey

Midway through an effort to find permanent housing for 100 homeless veterans in 100 days, the city’s Department of Homeless Services (DHS) is on target to meet its goal. Working with the federal Veterans Administration and local advocates for the homeless, DHS launched the 100 Veterans in 100 Days initiative Dec. 21 as a kind of solution-oriented sprint. It’s part of the city’s broader goal of moving from managing homelessness with shelters to ending it through the expansion of affordable and supportive housing.

One in three homeless men are veterans, according to the Veterans Administration (VA), and the vast majority – 97 percent – of homeless veterans are single men. Those involved in the project for veterans say its key innovation is integrating the VA into the wide network of organizations involved in homeless services in a way it wasn’t previously.

“The birth of this project was in a much larger setting, part of a much larger initiative to look at services for homeless vets so that we can [see] in the near future that no vet will be homeless in New York City,” said George Nashack, DHS director of housing and rehousing.

While DHS and VA staff members are rushing to find homes for veterans in the city’s shelter system, they also are meeting with a taskforce of community organizations and homelessness experts to determine how all the players can work together more effectively, share resources and minimize red tape, Nashack said.

By Feb. 1, 54 veterans had found homes, most in buildings managed by non-profit organizations such as Black Veterans for Social Justice and Common Ground Community. At these facilities, residents get help obtaining and keeping benefits, making doctor’s appointments and maintaining substance abuse and mental health treatment. There are gyms, security, group programming such as job skills and cooking classes, and a staff to generally keep an eye out for people who have difficulty managing life’s struggles but can basically live on their own.

Rosanne Haggerty, president of Common Ground, a nonprofit organization that manages 1,650 units of supportive housing, said the initiative is working well.

“The concrete objectives, making this target of 100 in 100 so concrete, is really pushing people to act maybe in ways we haven’t before to get people into housing,” she said. “It’s a useful device to get results.”

DHS estimates there are 700 veterans in the shelter system, one-tenth of the total shelter population. That number is likely low, said Nashack, because it is based on information applicants volunteer when they enter the shelter system. Not all veterans mention their ex-military status to DHS staff. But if the percentage of homeless veterans holds for homeless not in shelters, there are an additional 380 veterans sleeping on the street in New York, Nashack said. The Coalition for the Homeless estimates nearly five times more, saying there are over 5,000 homeless veterans in NYC on any given night.

The sudden spurt of activity may provoke the question of what took so long to focus attention and energy on finding permanent homes for veterans. But Haggerty and other advocates simply say they are grateful work is being done now and hope the ambitious pace will continue.

“Robert Hess is a veteran himself,” Haggerty said of the DHS commissioner, explaining why veterans have become a priority. “He has an unusual – and probably unprecedented at this agency – understanding of the VA. My understanding is that the VA just wasn’t integrated into the social services loop. Now we’re drawing this rich set of resources into the city planning on social welfare.”

Job Mashariki, CEO and founder of Black Veterans for Social Justice, a Brooklyn-based service and advocacy organization that manages supportive housing, said it’s about time. “This is something that we’ve been advocating for 28 years, that every vet has a residence that they come home to,” he said. “Part of what we say is if you’re going to spend money on war, you’ve got to spend money on the warriors.”

Nationwide an estimated 200,000 veterans of the U.S. military are homeless, according to a report by the Coalition for Supportive Housing, the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans and Volunteers of America released last week. New York is doing precisely what the report suggests, focusing on getting veterans into permanent supportive housing. According to the study, called Ending Homelessness Among Veterans Through Permanent Supportive Housing, forty-five percent of homeless veterans suffer from mental illness. Half have substance abuse problems. Veterans who are homeless are more likely to be homeless for longer than their non-veteran counterparts, the report found, with 32 percent of homeless male veterans reporting their last episode without a home lasted more than 13 months. Among non-veteran homeless men, only 17 percent said they had been homeless that long.

Pete Dougherty, director of the VA’s homeless veterans programs, said their military training may lead some veterans to persevere on the streets longer than their civilian counterparts.

The VA has learned and changed dramatically over the past three decades, Dougherty said. With tens of thousands of soldiers currently deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan, it is already providing services for the next wave of returning veterans. In addition to expanding mental health services, the agency is focusing on preventing homelessness and providing soldiers and their families with counseling and other services as soon as they return home.

“It’s a single digit percentage of people who complete the homeless program who become homeless again. And the completion percentage is getting higher and higher as we’re getting better at addressing the medical and benefits needs of veterans,” he said. “There is reason to believe the homeless veteran population has gone down in the past five years.”

Still, according to the anti-war, pro-veteran group Iraq Veterans Against the War, returning soldiers often wait months to see a doctor or mental health professional and many are taking anti-depressants and other drugs with little medical oversight.

Black Veterans for Social Justice has worked with several Iraq and Afghanistan veterans to find affordable housing, secure work and get mental help, Mashariki said. Common Ground has seen 20 veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in the past two years. One recently moved into a Common Ground building as part of the 100 in 100 initiative and another is in the process of doing so, Haggerty said.

Many returning veterans suffer from post traumatic stress disorder caused by their time in war. But many homeless veterans are at risk of homelessness because they were poor and young before they entered the military, Mashariki observed.

Today’s returning veterans may be more at risk of becoming homeless than their counterparts from earlier conflicts, the Coalition for Homeless Veterans report suggests, because they face a tighter housing market and higher rates of PTSD. The solution, the report said, is to be found in supportive housing.

Eileen Markey