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After Two-Year Push, D.C. Says It's On The Cusp Of Ending Veteran Homelessness

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Since Aug. 2013, D.C. has housed 1,300 homeless veterans.
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Since Aug. 2013, D.C. has housed 1,300 homeless veterans.

When Josey Bryant came back home after serving with the U.S. Army in Vietnam, the 66-year-old says he and other veterans weren't offered much help to transition back into civilian life.

For Bryant, like for many other veterans, coming back home didn't mean he actually had a home.

"I was at the bus station one night, maybe at the train station another night, and I was getting old," he says.

Something changed in recent years, though. "I went to a shelter, and then all of a sudden, 'We have a house for you,' and I took it," he says. "I've been fine ever since. I've never been late on my rent, and I'm happy again."

Bryant shared his story as he walked through a hall at the Washington Convention Center on Tuesday, where hundreds of D.C. veterans like himself — most African-American, representing every branch of the U.S. Armed Forces — gathered for an event where they could look for a job, help find housing or even get a haircut.

The event was part of the city's two-year effort to do away with veteran homelessness by the end of 2015, a goal set by President Obama early in his first term and adopted by jurisdictions across the country since.

According to D.C. officials and homeless advocates, D.C. may just become one of roughly two dozen cities and counties around the country that will hit the target date set by Obama. (Montgomery County and Arlington County are expected to hit their goals in June 2016.) Since it launched the effort in August 2013, D.C. has housed 1,300 veterans — an average of 74 veterans per month.

With a month left, D.C. is 80 percent of the way toward its goal.

"We all feel very committed to this goal. This is a group of individuals that have made intense sacrifices for this country, and to have anyone who’s worn the uniform sleeping on the streets is a national disgrace. We’ve slept this issue under the rug for too long," says Kristy Greenwalt, the head of the D.C. Interagency Council on Homelessness, which has been spearheading the effort along with local nonprofit groups and the federal government.

The push to end veteran homelessness in D.C. is a bright spot in what's otherwise a continuing battle to fight overall homelessness in the nation's capital. It's been on the rise — especially among families — in recent years. Greenwalt says that the successes have come from focus, collaboration, the collection and sharing of data, and the implementation of new tools.

Creating straight lines

Two of those tools were the by-name list and common assessment tool. The by-name list is a central registry of all the homeless veterans in the city. Whenever a veteran entered the homeless services system, whether through a government intake center or at any of the nonprofit providers working in the city, their information was entered into a database shared by all partners. The same database was used to assess their needs and the services provided to them.

The whole idea, says Greenwalt, is to make sure that once a homeless veteran emerges, his or her path through the otherwise complex system of providers and homeless services approaches a straight line — not the maze that many advocates say the system can often be.

"We know we can’t end homelessness among veterans if we don’t know who they are, what their names are and what their conditions and circumstances are," Greenwalt says. "They can’t be anonymous people on our street. They are our neighbors, they’re District residents. They all have a story, we need to know them by name."

With the new tools and in collaboration with federal agencies, D.C. has consistently chipped away at the number of homeless veterans in D.C.: from August to December 2013, 207 veterans were housed; from January to December 2014, 504 were housed; and from January to August 2015, 576 were housed.

Greenwalt and homeless advocates concede that they won't ever reach absolute zero, but rather use a metric known as "functional zero."

"Ending homelessness doesn’t mean we will ever get to zero. Functional zero is a steady state. It’s similar to the concept of full employment — there’s always some level of unemployment because there’s some movement in the market. It’s the same concept here. People will always experience housing crises, and we can’t prevent that," she explains.

In D.C., Greenwalt says that as long as 110 veterans are cycling through the system at any one time and being placed in housing — a process that can take between 30 and 60 days — they've reached that "functional zero."

"D.C. is getting much closer. The last mile is the hardest. But the District is holding itself to a higher standard, because it’s not just about just ending homelessness for everyone is currently homeless, but maintaining zero afterward. D.C. is trying to end it, but continue on and that could continue on beyond December," says Kurt Runge, who is with Miriam's Kitchen, one of the 11 government and non-profit agencies in the Veterans NOW coalition that has been working on the effort.

A tough market

The work to end veteran homelessness has not been without difficulties, though. Some advocates say that accounting for all homeless veterans remains an ongoing and ever-changing challenge, as does working through funding requirements from various federal agencies. There's also a broader context that bedevils the broader fight against homelessness — an expensive housing market.

"There are certain things we can control … but there are definitely things that are outside our control, and one of those is how extremely tight the housing market in the District is," says Greenwalt.

Still, both Greenwalt and Runge say that the work on veterans homelessness has established a common set of tools that can be used to chip away at homelessness among the general population. In that, they say, Obama's initiative allowed D.C. to work within a smaller control group to see what worked — and what didn't.

"Veterans is an important goals because it was a smaller, manageable number of people that could show that if we could end veterans homelessness, then we can end homelessness for everyone," says Runge.

"The fact that this could be the last Veterans Day that we have veterans who are homeless in the nation’s capital," he adds. "But the story doesn’t end there. We have to keep veterans off the street, and then we have to end homelessness for everyone else."

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