Last week at City Hall, Mayor Michael Nutter was joined by U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro to make a stunning announcement: Veteran homelessness had been eliminated in Philadelphia. Once a chronic epidemic, veteran homelessness in Philadelphia had officially reached functional zero—“functional” in that all veterans have now received housing with the exception of 15 who still refuse it.
It was an emotional Nutter who addressed those holdouts while making the announcement. “I have a message for each of you who are still out there,” the Mayor said, choking up. “We honor your service and your sacrifices. You deserve a home. We won’t give up on you.”
In his remarks, Castro offered the city something of a congratulatory pep talk. “You have actually done it,” he said. “You have effectively ended veteran homelessness.”
In August of 2013, Philly had 1,370 homeless veterans on its streets. Around that time, President Obama issued a national challenge to end the trend; Nutter was one of 859 mayors and nine governors to accept the “functional zero” goal. Philly joins 15 other cities in having reached it; last month, Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe announced that his state had made it, as well.
So how did Philly turn the epidemic around so fast? A combination of teamwork, leadership and innovative thinking.
Last week Nutter highlighted that teamwork when he singled out PhillyVets Home, a coalition of the Philadelphia Housing Authority, the Cpt. Michael J. Crescent VA Medical Center in University City, and a cluster of nonprofits that—rather than working in silos—came together to coordinate services, including streamlining the processes of eligibility and entry.
“You actually have done it,” HUD Secretary Julian Castro said last week at City Hall, while Mayor Nutter choked up. “You have effectively ended veteran homelessness.”
Even before the local agencies could come together, leadership was needed from the Federal level. The foundation of the city’s success goes back to 2010 when the Veterans Administration unveiled a “boot camp initiative” to try to combat veteran homelessness across the country. The initiative, called “Opening Doors,” essentially allowed for the federal government to offer more support to local programs and services that specialize in eliminating veteran homelessness. Added incentive came in 2014 in the form of the “Mayors Challenge to End Veteran Homelessness.” The program, which was designed by Michelle Obama and Jill Biden, urged communities across the country to prioritize this chronic issue and end it for good using any collaboration and means necessary. Last week, noting that Philadelphia officials had “worked for months to track down every homeless veteran in this city, get to know each of them by name, and collaborate with landlords to quickly find permanent housing for them,” Obama and Jill Biden penned an Inquirer op-ed, announcing that “Philadelphia has fulfilled its commitment.”
In addition to leadership from the Feds and cooperation at the local level, the city embraced the newest theory of how to combat homelessness: Housing First services. At its core, Housing First aims to provide the homeless with a foundation in which shelter is no longer an unknown. Having the need for shelter met allows a person who previously struggled to secure basic necessities the ability to focus his or her efforts and attention towards recovering from addiction and behavioral health issues, finding stable work, pursuing an education, and ultimately cultivating a sense of self-sufficiency.
The first notable Housing First model came at Pathways to Housing in New York. Established in 1992, Pathways offers permanent shelter to homeless individuals that have psychiatric and/or substance-related disorders. Along with housing, support teams are made available to counsel and guide tenants on the road to recovery and stability. This was the first instance in which housing and support services were offered in conjunction with one another. Since then, research shows that housing combined with services increases housing tenure and reduces hospital stays. Housing First has been seen to drastically reduce chronic homelessness.
But getting individuals into housing is just part of the battle. Keeping them there can be the biggest challenge of all. When addiction and mental illness burden those who are shelter insecure, instances of chronic homelessness compile and create a cycle that is difficult to break. That’s why the city needed to be flexible in its approach—there’s no one-size-fits-all cure.
“You have to have a continuum of types of housing and types of services at every level,” explains Steve Culbertson, of the Housing Development & Veteran Services Department at Impact Services Corporation. “You have to determine what their need is and what types of intervention they need to ensure they will stay housed.” After years of trying to combat veteran homelessness, city officials became convinced that what was needed was a multi-pronged approach that can be tailored and modified based on need and individual circumstance.
The Opening Doors initiative set goals to end veteran homelessness by 2015 and chronic homelessness by 2017. Now the goal is to approach tackling chronic homelessness with the same sense of moral obligation as a coalition of public and private forces have brought to the fight against veteran homelessness.
Local organizations such as Impact Services Corporation, the Veterans Multi-Service Center (VMC) of Philadelphia, and the Philadelphia Veterans Affairs Medical Center (to name just a few) allow for the kind of variety necessary to ensure that veterans have the specific care they need. Along with housing, support from medical and psychiatric professionals is paramount in dealing with the trauma these veterans encountered. And, as it turns out, this trauma is not caused solely by warfare.
“Many veterans have experienced severe trauma through both combat and homelessness,” said Culbertson, “and their ability to deal with that is through addiction many times.”
Once the support is in place and put into motion, it is then the goal of Housing First services to wean those being sheltered from the need for support so they can become self-sufficient and reliable members of society once more. Once they’re housed and sobriety is achieved, those within the program work on getting a job and an education. It is this gradual progression from constant support to self-sufficiency and self-reliance that allows those who were once homeless to become independent and provide for themselves.
The systems in place that combat veteran homelessness have transformed the issue from a chronic pattern into a rare and diminishing instance. In addition to the state of Virginia, Philadelphia now joins cities such as Houston, Mobile, Syracuse, Las Vegas and New Orleans that have functionally eliminated veteran homelessness. “At present and going forward,” says Culbertson, “homelessness among veterans in Philadelphia is and will be rare, brief and non-recurring.”
The Opening Doors initiative from 2010 set goals to end veteran homelessness by 2015, chronic homelessness by 2017, and end homelessness for families with children by 2020. Whether or not the initiative will reach all of its goals remains to be seen. But since its inception, Opening Doors has helped homelessness numbers plummet significantly. According to a HUD report, since 2010, there has been a national 36percent decline in veteran homelessness, a 19 percent drop in family homelessness, and a 22 percent decrease in chronic homelessness.
Chronic homelessness has long been seen as an intractable problem. But the inroads made in combatting veteran homelessness, here and across the nation, indicate that no longer might be true. Now the goal is to approach tackling chronic homelessness with the same sense of moral obligation as a coalition of public and private forces have brought to the fight against veteran homelessness. “The idea of thriving has been coming to me,” says Culbertson, a passionate Housing First advocate. “We want to help people thrive and help them thrive on their own.”
Header Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Matthew Woitunski