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Ending Veteran Homelessness by Seeking Rapid Results
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When the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) announced a drop in veteran homelessness in 2012, it pointed to the success of the HUD-VASH housing and services program. Some of that success is no doubt due to innovative veterans’ “boot camps” that prompted some communities to house more than one veteran a day for 100 days. In fact, a December 2012 report to Congress on veteran homelessness (http://www.usich.gov/population/veterans/report_to_congress_on_homeless_veterans/) the boot camps as an innovative program. Participating communities shortened the time it took for veterans to be housed and focused on those with the most significant needs.
Ending Veteran Homelessness by Seeking Rapid Results

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) announced in December 2012 that veteran homelessness had dropped 7 percent the previous year. This decrease came at a time when the economy was stagnant and family homelessness was increasing. Slightly more than 62,000 veterans were homeless on a single night in 2012, a 17 percent drop from 2009. This puts the Administration on track to meet its goal of ending veteran homelessness by 2015, U.S. Secretary of Veterans Affairs (VA) Eric K. Shineski said. The news was greeted with broad acclaim, but Beth Sandor likely was not surprised.

Ms. Sandor is Director of Improvement at Community Solutions, a New York City-based nonprofit that spearheads the 100,000 Homes Campaign. The Campaign launched in 2010 with a mission to help communities house 100,000 of the most vulnerable individuals who are homeless in the United States in four years. Last year, the group turned its efforts to veteran homelessness. Campaign staff teamed with the Rapid Results Institute (RRI) of Stamford, Connecticut. RRI helps communities stage 100-day projects that produce tangible results.

Shaking Up the SystemIn May 2012, 17 communities gathered for veterans’ “boot camps” in San Diego, Orlando, and Houston. Twelve-person teams met to set ambitious 100-day goals to “shake up their system,” Ms. Sandor says. Team members included representatives from the local department of Veterans Affairs, Public Housing Authority, Continuum of Care, and community agencies. They were charged with streamlining the process for using HUD-VASH vouchers to serve veterans who are chronically homeless.

The HUD-VASH (Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing) program provides vouchers for permanent housing with VA supportive services to veterans who are homeless. Many communities struggle to get the vouchers to those most in need. In Atlanta, only one-quarter of HUD-VASH vouchers were issued to veterans who experienced chronic homelessness. In San Francisco, it used to take nine months from the time a veteran was issued a voucher to the time he or she leased an apartment.

“Not anymore,” noted the New York Times in writing about the success of the veterans’ boot camps. Participating communities met or exceeded their targets, some housing the equivalent of more than one veteran every single day during the 100-day challenge. In Houston and Harris County, Texas, they housed 148 veterans in 100 days; 101 of these veterans had been chronically homeless. Atlanta gave 93 percent of its HUD-VASH vouchers to veterans who were chronically homeless. San Francisco cut the time from issuance of a voucher to “lease up” by 73 percent—to just 83 days.

Working Together for Change“This is not rocket science,” says Mark Thiele, Vice President of the Housing Choice Voucher Program for the Houston Housing Authority. “That being said, it’s harder to do than talk about.”The secret to the participating communities’ success? They began working together. In Houston and Harris County, they held what they called “mass briefings.” This was one-stop shopping where veterans could be deemed eligible for a voucher and get help searching for an appropriate rental unit. Participating teams identified barriers, such as the lack of deposits and moving costs, and set out to address them.

In some cases, the barriers resulted from changes at the national level that had not been broadly disseminated at the local level. When the team in Atlanta sat down to map out the process, they discovered that it took 144 days for a veteran to be housed. Almost half that time was devoted to tracking down certain types of identification that were no longer required for a veteran to secure housing, notes Susan Lampley. Ms. Lampley is Project Officer for the Innovation Delivery Team in the Atlanta Mayor’s Office. “A light bulb goes on when you see the process in front of you,” Ms. Lampley says. They redesigned their system by identifying barriers and crafting solutions.

The teams supported one another during weekly calls. They also met monthly by phone with their federal partners, including HUD, VA, and the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness. “The national leaders helped clear a path to success by reducing barriers,” Ms. Sandor says. A second wave of veterans’ boot camps was held last fall.

Knowing the People You ServeSupport at the highest levels and on-the-ground collaboration were critical. But Ms. Sandor believes that ending homelessness is even simpler. It’s about getting to know the people you serve. Community Solutions emphasizes the importance of creating registries of a community’s homeless population. Going beyond a point-in-time count, registries provide detailed information about a community’s most vulnerable citizens. “When people know the names of those who are homeless, they feel they have to act,” Ms. Sandor says.

This year, the Community Solutions veterans’ boot camps will broaden their focus to reducing rates of chronic homelessness for all veterans. Twenty communities with high rates of homelessness among veterans will participate. They’ll have plenty of support to do so. Leaders from the first two waves of veterans’ boot camps are acting as peer experts. “We’re creating a network of change agents,” Ms. Sandor says. Together, they are committed to end homelessness among those who have served our country, one veteran at a time.

For more information about the veterans’ boot camps, contact Beth Sandor at bsandor@cmtysolutions.org.

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