"Those who have served this nation as veterans should never find themselves on the streets, living without care and without hope." That statement, by Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki in late 2009, inspired an accelerated effort by community partners who joined forces to end homelessness among veterans in Whatcom County.
At that time we already had the framework for strategies to accomplish this goal in Whatcom's 10-year plan to end homelessness. But the resources devoted to homeless veterans was just not enough to tackle the problem.
So the county Health Department, county executive and the county's Veterans Advisory Board restructured our local veterans relief program, with a strong focus on homeless vets. The Bellingham Housing Authority, Opportunity Council and health department succeeded in securing two major VA supportive housing grants. Soon thereafter, the Opportunity Council was awarded the VA's Supportive Services for Veteran Families grant, which it operates in a five-county region, including Whatcom County. These programs have been fully integrated now for two years and Opportunity Council added robust employment and financial literacy services to the mix. Many other local organizations have since partnered with these agencies to lend additional services, including private sector landlords' housing.
Since 2010, the number of homeless veterans encountered during the annual homeless census decreased nearly 60 percent. At the Whatcom Homeless Service Center, we used to routinely have upwards of 40 homeless veterans on our radar at any point in time. Lately, we are routinely down to single digits.
We cannot say yet that our community has ended veteran homelessness. And we cannot predict how forces beyond our local control may affect our ability to do so: many more veterans returning from long deployments, continued lackluster employment opportunities, rapidly escalating housing costs. But we have now, for the first time, observed what can happen when we work together to bring the supply and diversity of supportive housing resources close to the level of need.
Communities all across Washington State are hard at work implementing similar programs and seeing similar results for veterans and other homeless populations. In fact, within the five-county region in which we integrated the Supportive Services for Veteran Families program with other veteran housing programs, we see similar, positive trends. What this means is that ending veteran homelessness is within our grasp.
The total number of homeless veterans decreased from 163 in 2010 to 69 in 2013. The number of unsheltered veterans also decreased, from 81 in 2010 to 21 in 2013. The number of sheltered veterans decreased as well, from 82 in 2010 to 48 in 2013.
But what does "ending homelessness" really mean. It doesn't mean there will never be another homeless veteran in our community. Homelessness and housing instability within any population is a very dynamic phenomenon. It does mean that encountering a homeless veteran will be rare, and when that does happen, the community will respond immediately so that at any point in time, the number of homeless vets is very low.
It also means that as our communities continue to make progress toward this goal, we need to begin shifting some of our resources toward homeless prevention. And that is something we intend to do with our latest Supportive Services for Veteran Families grant that was just awarded last week by the Veterans Administration.
These hopeful trends and the strategies that created them point the way to ending homelessness generally, for families, seniors and people with disabilities. As is the case in our peer communities across Washington State, local, creative, cross-sector partnerships toward ending homelessness are creating collective impacts we can see at the individual, family and community levels. Private landlords, health care organizations, employers, law and justice institutions, local government, faith communities and individual community members are all participating. Most recently, the passage of the City of Bellingham's affordable housing levy is a terrific demonstration of community will to invest widely in reducing one of the root causes of homelessness. These are all signs that our community wants no one to live without care and without hope.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Greg Winter is director of the Whatcom Homeless Service Center at Opportunity Council and chair of the Whatcom County Coalition to End Homelessness.