The costs of war continue long after the last shot is fired. One of these costs is veterans' homelessness. Although flawless counts are impossible to come by due to the transient nature of homeless populations, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development estimates that 57,849 veterans are homeless on any given night.
Veterans face unique challenges in addition to the complex set of factors influencing all homelessness: extreme shortages of affordable housing, livable incomes and access to health care. Many displaced and at-risk veterans live with lingering effects of post-traumatic stress disorder and substance abuse, which are compounded by a lack of family and social support networks. Additionally, military occupations and training are not always transferable to the civilian workforce, placing some veterans at a disadvantage when competing for employment.
In 2011, we here in Whatcom County decided to tackle the challenge of veterans' homelessness head on. By eliminating their housing crisis, veterans are in a better place to address the underlying issues that lead to their homelessness.
The enactment of a new county code creating the Veterans Assistance Program initiated the drive to end veterans' homelessness. Whatcom County Ordinance 2011-033 formally established the Whatcom County Veterans Assistance Program. The ordinance called for a significant expansion of services to veterans, including housing assistance, health services, training opportunities, case management services and numerous other supportive services to provide a comprehensive continuum of care. Local property tax millage dedicated only to this purpose could now be used more effectively. It was clear to us that providing a place to live wasn't enough to ensure a stable and productive life for veterans who had been homeless for some time. We knew that we had to offer supportive services to improve their health and build independent living skills.
We partnered with local and federal entities along with non-profits, veterans groups, charities and religious-based organizations to provide wrap-around services for our veterans. These wrap-around services and community focused care enable us to provide replicable and sustainable services for our veterans. We use one point of entry to access all homeless benefits (the Whatcom Homeless Service Center at Opportunity Council) and another single point of entry for all veteran-based wraparound services (the Whatcom County Veterans Assistance Program). These two agencies work closely together and network with other providers to offer robust services to our veterans. Specifically, providers from the Opportunity Council and the Veterans Assistance Program meet on a weekly basis to discuss cases and network solutions.
By leveraging our local tax dollars set aside for veterans we were able bring in both the Veterans Administration's Subsidized Housing Program and the Federal Supportive Services for Veteran Families grant. This blending of funding enables us to be a regional leader in veterans housing and allows us to exponentially expand services for our veterans and continue to serve them for the foreseeable future.
In addition, by partnering with the Whatcom Homeless Service Center we have been able to target eligible chronically homeless veterans and to build relationships with landlords in the community in order to house some of our most challenged individuals.
We began to track our accomplishments of housing our homeless veterans and connecting them to critical health and behavioral healthcare, and the necessary supportive services to ensure their ascent to contributory citizenship. We counted how many veterans we housed, and how many of them received the key services they required to remain successful in their new homes.
Through the implementation of Ordinance 2011-033 and targeted housing dollars, the County Point in Time Count demonstrated that the number of homeless veterans in Whatcom County dropped from 74 in 2011 to 28 in 2012. The number of homeless veterans has decreased by 65 percent from 2008, the first year of the count, to 2014, the current year. Only three veterans who were counted in 2013 remained unhoused in 2014.
We are on the path to end veterans' homelessness through sound policies based on data, best practices and community collaboration focused on a priority valued by all.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Elizabeth Harmon-Craig is a veterans specialist with the Whatcom County Health Department. The department was honored in July 2014 as Local Health Department of the Year for medium-sized jurisdictions by the National Association of County and City Health Officials for the work it has done to end local veterans' homelessness through a commitment of funding and an expansion of veterans' programs and services. For more information online, go to whatcomcounty.us\health.