Local agencies gather to assess the VA’s goal to end veteran homelessness
Two years ago, Vietnam War veteran Wayne Wyman went to sleep on a beach in Monterey. He was drunk and had no place else to go. He had already been living on the streets for six years, jobless and debilitated by alcoholism.
Just a few weeks after that night on the beach, social workers from the Veterans Affairs Palo Alto Health Care System contacted him, determined to help him recover.
“I didn’t think they could or would do anything for me, but they proved me wrong,” he says.
Wyman says that Dr. Kelly Conway, outreach coordinator for the VA Palo Alto, arranged for him to be taken by ambulance to Dominican Hospital where doctors put him into a coma to facilitate his detoxification.
The VA footed the bill for his medical treatment and moved him into temporary housing after his stay at the hospital.
Wyman then plugged into veteran resources at the Emeline Health Center, connected with Substance Use Disorder (SUD) specialist for the VA, Brenda Harris, and began his journey toward sobriety—a journey that continues.
Today, Wyman is an outreach volunteer for HUD-VASH, a partnership between the Santa Cruz County Department of Housing and Urban Development and the VA’s Supportive Housing program, and is studying full time to become an SUD specialist like Harris, who he credits with saving his life.
On Thursday morning, July 25, Wyman shared his story with a room full of health service providers and veterans who had gathered for a bi-annual veterans summit, this year titled “Turning the Keys to Ending Veterans’ Homelessness.”
The event’s theme was assessing the progress of a five-year goal set by VA in late 2009 to end veteran homelessness nationally, as well as bring the wide variety of veteran, homeless, and mental health service providers in Santa Cruz County to a common venue for networking and discussion of how to better assist homeless veterans.
“The goal for this event is for the VA to better collaborate with the community service providers so that we are able to provide the most broad range of services available,” says Conway. “If we’re all operating from the same information base, the better it will be for the veterans. This is an opportunity for us to get to know each other and know what the services are.”
When the VA initiated their five-year plan, Santa Cruz County relied on one HUD-VASH social worker—Dave Resnikoff—and had just 35 housing vouchers for veterans.
This year, Resnikoff says, HUD-VASH has 160 housing vouchers and a team of five social workers.
The effort began with developing a network of care, Resnikoff says—peer support groups, psychotherapy sessions, and substance abuse counseling, as well as services oriented toward prevention, education and employment.
Of the 160 veterans currently in the HUD-VASH program for long-term supportive housing, 126 are already housed, says Shannon Healer, HUD-VASH social work supervisor for the county, who also spoke on a panel at the event.
Healer says that the remaining 34 veterans should be housed well before the new year.
While 160 veterans are in the program, HUD-VASH has assisted a total of 250 local veterans since 2009, indicating that about 90 veterans who received housing vouchers worked their way out of low-income eligibility, freeing their vouchers to accommodate new homeless veterans, says Kate Severin, social worker and Chief of the Domiciliary in Menlo Park.
The average time it takes for a veteran to obtain housing, from the time of admission into the HUD-VASH program to moving in, is about four months, Severin says. Once they have the housing voucher in their hand, it takes on average about 70 days, though a handful of vets have gotten into housing in as few as 10 days after receiving their voucher.
“That’s pretty incredible if you know anything about the housing market in Santa Cruz County,” Severin says. “It can be very challenging.”
She says that in HUD’s 2012 Annual Homeless Assessment Report, the homeless veteran population estimate for Santa Cruz County, which uses data from Watsonville-based census organization Applied Survey Research (ASR)’s annual homeless census and survey, to be 271—a 2 percent decrease from 2011.
However, Santa Cruz County Veterans Advocate Dean Kaufman says he does not believe the census depicts the homeless population very accurately. “It’s like throwing a dart at a barn wall,” he says.
He estimates the county’s homeless veteran population to be more likely in the vicinity of 500 people.
In the 2012 Annual Homeless Assessment Report by HUD, it is estimated that 62,619 veterans were homeless on a single night nationwide in 2012, which represents a 7.2 percent decline compared with HUD’s 2011 estimate.
“The VA has done a great job at getting to know our local VA reps and our whole community,” Kaufman says.
HUD-VASH Santa Cruz County recently created a new position called Peer Support Specialist, which will help the homeless veterans with vouchers find and apply for housing units, Kaufman says.
After the summit meeting, all of the service providers in attendance ate lunch together, exchanged contact information, and discussed partnerships.
Standing outside and looking in at the crowd, Wyman noted that that was the most important part of the meeting.
“A couple years ago we didn’t have all the agencies working together,” Wyman says. “So it was really hard for one agency to say to vets, ‘This is what you need. Go here.’ Now we’re putting everything together. It’s growing, and I think it will be better for our vets, big time.”
While HUD-VASH pushes to help house homeless veterans and forge stronger partnerships, the work is representative of a bigger overall shift for the VA, Severin says.
Severin says the VA aims to work more closely and effectively with veterans coming home from the Middle East than they did with Vietnam War veterans.
“Many of our Vietnam War veterans had a negative experience when they came back from overseas,” Severin says. “And they associate the VA—a government entity—with that negative experience. That’s why I’m so pleased we’re working on these new ways of serving veterans. We’re coming into the communities and providing veterans with friendly faces who genuinely want to help.”