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News / Northwest

Veterans program shows way to reducing all homelessness

By Amanda Zhou, The Seattle Times
Published: April 16, 2023, 6:00am

SEATTLE — More than a decade into a federal and local effort to house veterans, the program is one of the most successful examples of how to reduce homelessness across the country.

This year, the federal government touted a double-digit drop in the number of homeless veterans in the past two years and a 55% drop across the U.S. since 2010, when then-President Barack Obama pledged to house veterans and Congress allocated millions in funding.

King County has seen a 37% drop in veteran homelessness between January 2018 and the end of 2022.

Local residents Stephen Graef and Sydney E. show why the program works. Sydney, 25, was an aircraft mechanic on Whidbey Island in 2017 and Graef, 79, was a typist and medic based in Germany during the Vietnam War. (Sydney asked that her full name not be used to protect her safety.)

Both struggled with homelessness for years after their service, but have been settled since receiving vouchers in December 2021 that pay most of their housing costs.

Veterans who receive these vouchers stay housed at far higher rates than any other local programs.

In March, the VA announced that of the 40,401 veterans they housed in 2022, just 6% returned to homelessness at some point that year. Those kind of metrics are virtually unheard of in other forms of housing and temporary shelter Seattle has experimented with.

Compared to the general homeless population, the services system available to homeless veterans is stunning in its speed, scope and success.

King County seized on the success of this federal initiative to expand its reach to veterans with fewer needs than many homeless veterans, who often have mental and physical health struggles or a substance use disorder related to trauma they experienced in the military.

Officials say the model, which builds on long-standing relationships with the federal VA, the local housing authorities and nonprofits, shows that with the right resources and coordination, consistently shrinking the number of homeless people is possible.

“I think if we keep the right programs in place that are designed specifically for our veterans, we will be able to put what I think is a very shameful chapter behind us,” King County Executive Dow Constantine said.

A past president’s promise

Obama’s ambitious plan to end homelessness among veterans, families and children united the federal government, local mayors and governors and opened up millions each year in rental assistance and case management.

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Five years later, the Obama administration touted that homelessness among veterans and families and chronic homelessness had dropped.

Some cities had already announced they reached “functional zero” — meaning that any homeless veteran who wanted housing could get it. Three states and 83 towns or counties, including Washington’s Kittitas County, still boast that.

However, that progress stalled during the Trump administration when funding and the number of vouchers awarded dwindled. The homeless veteran population plateaued between 2016 and 2020, according to the VA.

Now, President Joe Biden has renewed the pledge, hoping to reduce all homelessness by 25% by 2025. And in January, the U.S. counted more than 33,000 homeless veterans, an 11% decrease since 2020.

“It also serves as a proof point for how we can come together to solve homelessness for other groups as well,” said Jeff Olivet, executive director of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, in November.

Officials attribute the success to the billions Congress has allocated to the program, as well as numerous wraparound support services, housing navigators and an already-robust veterans health care system. Most veterans are paired with a licensed social worker and sometimes veterans live in units with support staff on-site.

The approach has been so successful that the King County Regional Homelessness Authority’s five-year plan, which outlined the region’s path to ending homelessness, specifically highlighted families and homeless veterans as two populations who receive more granular and immediate care.

The resources that exist for veterans “demonstrates that the capacity to solve this problem is present in the jurisdiction, but it simply hasn’t been appropriately resourced or scaled,” the plan stated.

King County’s program

King County has made further innovations to the program, expanding vouchers to veterans like Sydney and Graef, who need rental assistance but fewer supports.

Sydney was homeless at the end of high school and joined ROTC. She said the service gave her structure and taught her organization.

After being honorably discharged in 2019, Sydney said she was living with a partner but left after a domestic violence incident, and still fears for her safety. From there, she said she bounced between friends’ and family homes in Georgia, Virginia and Washington and finally an Airbnb until she maxed out her credit card.

Then she called 211, the hotline that connects people with local services, and the operator referred her to a shelter. After a 90-minute intake call at the shelter, Sydney moved into veteran-specific transitional housing in Orting.

While she was there, a case manager presented her with a few options including a low-incoming housing community. The building had social services and veteran benefits specialists on-site, as well as restrictions, like a curfew.

Wanting more freedom, Sydney joined the King County pilot program instead. Sydney toured an apartment in the ZIP code she wanted and liked that it was in a quiet area and close to transit. She signed the lease and decorated the walls with her own artwork.

“This is the first time I’ve unpacked my suitcase,” she said.

Since moving in, Sydney has gotten to know her neighborhood through her daily walks, often taking pictures of flowers, plants and the sky on her phone.

The pilot is now permanent. Since 2005, King County veteran services have been funded through a levy of $0.10 per $1,000 of assessed property value.

In the past, the levy has generated around $60 million a year, about evenly split among veterans, older people and other vulnerable populations. The levy expires at the end of 2023, meaning it will be up for renewal for the third time and appear on the August ballot if King County councilmembers approve the proposal.

King County’s program will oversee distribution of about 188 vouchers by the end of this year, with between three and five people referred per week. King County Veterans Administrator Megan Stanley said she anticipates all available vouchers to be awarded by the end of summer.

In total, the Seattle and King County housing authorities oversee about 1,700 veteran vouchers and there are about 4,400 vouchers allotted to Washington statewide, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

About 74% of King County Housing Authority’s vouchers are being used for a lease — a rate similar to the national average, as of last November.

In Los Angeles County and the city, about 55% of vouchers are being used, and the New York City housing authority is at 91%.

The first and last mile of a voucher

Obstacles remain.

A shortage of licensed clinical social workers has created a bottleneck for voucher distribution. With high rents across the region, voucher holders often get priced out of certain neighborhoods.

Also it can be hard to find landlords who will accept the voucher, though the King County Housing Authority hires housing navigators who help potential tenants use the system.

Still, a homeless veteran can be issued a voucher within weeks and most are able to find a lease within four months, a lightning-fast timeline compared to the yearslong wait lists for traditional voucher programs or the labyrinthine system of emergency housing voucher approval.

Graef had been trying to get housing through the VA for more than a year, but said he was told the waiting list was too long. Then, King County expanded its voucher program eligibility.

Graef was driving his daughter to Kentucky, he said, when his social worker called and told him he had found a place that would take Graef’s voucher, but he would need to act on it. Fast.

Graef pulled over in Fergus Falls, Minn., and walked into a public library, where librarians helped him fill out the forms on a computer.

Now that he is stably housed, Graef said he has been able to spend more time with his family in Western Washington and has been able to schedule a hip replacement through the VA, something the doctors would not have done if he didn’t have a place to recover.

The VA is unique in that it functions as one nonpartisan agency despite differences across facilities and regions, said Soni Adams, Puget Sound Health Care’s chief of social work. That allows everything from mental health care to transportation help to come from one place, she said.

Western Washington is unusual in the amount of collaboration and communication that occurs among county housing authorities, the federal veterans health and benefits administrations as well as other state and federal agencies, said VA Secretary Denis McDonough at the VA Puget Sound Health Care’s Community Resource and Referral Center. At the center, veterans can meet with a primary care provider, do laundry, shower and get free clothing.

Beyond the mix of federal and local funding for housing and health care, there are other factors that make housing veterans successful. King County administrator Stanley said the relatively small number of homeless veterans within the homeless population makes keeping track of everyone easier during the weekly case conferencing meeting.

Veterans have also gained more acceptance and empathy from the public in the last two to three decades, said Leo Flor, King County director for community and human services. Housed people do not regard them with as much fear as the general homeless population, and are more willing to embrace them in their community, he said.

“We, as a society, have made a decision that we are going to humanize veterans and that we, even when they face difficulty, are going to understand them for who they could be,” Flor said.