Urban Centers are Contested Territory in Fight to End Veteran Homelessness
Veteran homelessness in D.C. is lower than it has ever been in the past decade. However — limited by space, housing affordability and benefit programs that draw more veterans to the region — the District has not been able to join the neighboring state of Virginia or Montgomery County, Maryland in sustaining “functional zero” for homeless vets.
The amount of veteran homelessness in D.C. has nearly halved from 667 people in 2008 to 350 people in 2016, based on annual Point-in-Time counts compiled by the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development. This parallels the 50 percent decline in veteran homelessness nationwide since 2010, as reported by the Obama administration last year.
D.C.’s neighbors were recognized in 2015 by the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness for having achieved the federal benchmarks for ending veteran homelessness: The community must end chronic homelessness among veterans, permanently house homeless veterans within 90 days, sustain enough permanent housing resources, and keep use of service-intensive transitional housing lower than the number of veterans entering homelessness.
At the state level, the data analyzed by the USICH is aggregated rather than independently collected and reviewed.
Montgomery County additionally met the slightly more rigorous guidelines of Community Solutions’ Built for Zero campaign (formerly Zero: 2016): “At any point in time, the number of Veterans experiencing sheltered and unsheltered homelessness will be no greater than the current monthly housing placement rate for Veterans experiencing homelessness.” One of the key service providers in Montgomery County, Bethesda Cares, went on to report that they have seen an “absolute zero” of any new homeless veterans in downtown Bethesda since January 2016.
The Montgomery County Coalition for the Homeless has been corresponding with Maryland’s Interagency Council on Homelessness about what strategies they found successful. Montgomery County has been using these strategies to build a similar model to end chronic homelessness in the county by the end of this year.
Meanwhile, in the District, a team of government agencies and community providers known as the Veterans NOW! coalition reports that D.C. is “very close” to ending veteran homelessness, but is still working through challenges of systemic inefficiencies along with housing affordability and availability.
Why is D.C. not there yet?
Organizations from Montgomery County, Virginia and D.C. all recognized that the District is in a much tougher position, with significantly higher rates of homelessness and in-flow of new homeless veterans than its neighbors.
In comparing January 2016 PIT counts, Maryland counted 7,689 total homeless individuals at the time of the count (Montgomery County counted for 981 of that), Virginia had 6,268 and D.C. had 8,350.
Looking at the 2016 veterans breakdown, Maryland had 555 (Montgomery County: 17), Virginia had 515 and D.C. had 350.
In context, the homelessness rate in D.C. per capita, based on the 2016 PIT snapshot, is about 10 times that of Maryland and nearly 18 times that of Virginia. Geographically, the District has 170 times more homeless people per square mile than Maryland and 814 times more than Virginia.
pie charts showing the number of homeless veterans within the larger homeless population
More recently, the D.C. Interagency Council on Homelessness surveyed the last permanent address zip codes of first-time low-barrier shelter stayers in August 2016. Forty-two percent reported the District as their home origin, 21 percent reported a zip code outside of D.C., 11 percent reported not to know and 27 percent were calculated as “missing” and unreported.
The noticeably high “missing” percentage is due to the nature of low-barrier shelters, D.C. ICH Director Kristy Greenwalt wrote in an email to Street Sense. The shelter beds are all locally funded and intended to serve District residents, however, documentation is not required for anyone trying to access the low-barrier shelter.
There may also be a high chance of many non-District residents among the “missing” and “don’t know” percentages because of fears of being turned away from D.C. shelters, Greenwalt suggested.
The ICH also analyzed the home origins for people using Grant and Per Diem beds and shelter and transitional housing. The Homeless Providers Grant and Per Diem Program is the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs’ largest transitional housing program. It awards grants to community-based agencies to create transitional housing programs, and it offers per diem payments — daily maximum allowances — currently at $45.79 per day.
This analysis found that 48 percent of veterans resided in D.C. before entering GPD programs, 37 percent resided outside of D.C. and 16 percent did not respond.
While these resources are intended to serve the whole metropolitan region, all of the region’s per diem beds are in the District and thus, those individuals have historically been counted in D.C.’s PIT count, according to Greenwalt.
The GPD program compounds D.C.’s challenges, confirmed Susie Sinclair-Smith, executive director of the Montgomery County Coalition for the Homeless.
Sinclair-Smith compared D.C.’s struggles to those of Maryland, where the Baltimore city area accounts for over a quarter of the state’s total homeless population, based on the 2016 PIT count.
Heat map of regional veteran homelessness based on 2016 Point-in-Time count data. (click to enlarge) Data Analysis by Ian Erasmus
“There is a significant number of veterans in the per diem program, it’s harder to move that population,” she said, explaining the difficulty in finding permanent housing solutions when GPD only funds transitional housing.
In order to ease the strain on D.C., the ICH has recently been working with its regional partners to track GPD veterans coming from outside the District, connect them back to their originating jurisdiction for help with permanent housing and enable more accurate PIT counts.
During the federal review process, USICH works to verify if a community may have met federal guidelines only by sending their veterans into another jurisdiction, according to regional coordinator Joe Savage.
While there is not a formal follow-up process yet, Savage said USICH checks in with communities approximately twice a year to collect case studies and see how localities are maintaining federal benchmarks. The USICH recommends that communities reassess benchmarks every 90 days.
Path to Achievement
At the moment, the Veterans NOW! coalition has decided not to set another definite target date for ending veteran homelessness in D.C.
“They tend to get misinterpreted as a deadline rather than as an ambitious goal,” said Adam Rocap, a member of Veterans NOW! and deputy director at Miriam’s Kitchen.
The ICH initially created a plan to end veteran homelessness by 2015 as a part of Homeward D.C., the ICH 5-year strategic plan that aims to make homelessness across the board be a “rare, brief, and non-recurring experience” by 2020.
“We’ve come a long way and we’re very close to reaching a functional zero. Setting the initial  goal date accomplished that, so now we’re setting the goal to keep continuing the work,” Rocap said.
D.C. has one remaining criterion to meet: a working Housing Plan for every veteran to have access to safe shelters and/or permanent housing.
“We’re staying on top of in-flow with our regular meetings and outreach, but the housing market is really tough,” said Kally Canfield, division director of veteran services at Friendship Place and now co-chair of the Veterans NOW! coalition.
“It is what it is. We just have to work around it,” Canfield said with a slight, tired frustration at the tremendous task of tackling an issue that has always been looming over the District: affordable housing.
A graph showing the steady increase in homelessness in Washington, D.C. compared to the recent decrease in specifically veteran homelessness in the city.
Washington D.C. homeless population over time compared to specifically homeless veterans over time. Data analysis by Ian Erasmus
“I wish it was just one obvious system issue such as not finding enough landlords, that’s much easier to solve,” Rocap said, “But for good and for bad, it’s four, five, six medium-sized interconnected system barriers such as regional in-flow, landlords, coordinating, case managing, outreach — how do we work on it at the same time — it’s a mixture of time and continuous system improvement.”
With the District’s building height limitation laws from 1910 still in effect, the small area of the capital itself and a multitude of other issues roiling together to form the now commonplace phrase “D.C’s lack of affordable and available housing, ”the coalition still sees an end to veteran homelessness in sight.
“It’s been incredible to see the change, the collaboration to make this happen. At first, there were many people just in their own world and now it’s very, very targeted,” Canfield said. “We know who is homeless and how to get them the help that they need.”
Canfield is referring to a by-name list of every homeless veteran in the District that is reviewed and updated weekly.
The John and Jill Ker Conway Residence at North Capitol Commons is one of D.C.’s recent successes in creating affordable housing for residents and homeless veterans. “That filled a gap that wasn’t there yet and is a great community solution to use as a model,” Rocap said.
What spurred progress?
Thorough data management and analysis has been essential for communities to track individuals and effectively regulate resources such as federal and local funding.
Pulling data and getting a better idea of where the homeless veterans were staying is what began Virginia’s start toward ending veteran homelessness, said Matt Leslie, housing development director for Veterans Services in Virginia.
“In the beginning, it was really a lack of communication and understanding of what’s out there for veterans … people would kick them over to the VA without knowing what they were doing,” Leslie said. “Oftentimes, they weren’t eligible for VA services.”
Strong political and public support drove Virginia’s momentum — Governor Terry McAuliffe comes from a family of veterans and in the state of Virginia, one out of ten citizens is a veteran, according to Leslie.
Veterans in Virginia also benefited from ready access to much more affordable housing and sustainable employment than is available in D.C. or Maryland. Leslie gave examples of strong employment partnerships with the state’s power company and how the governor’s leadership brought many stakeholders on board.
As of now, there are 42 communities and three states that have met federal benchmarks, and there are five communities that have met Built for Zero guidelines.
Both campaigns work together to emphasize a Housing First model using the new coordinated entry process that HUD introduced in the nation’s first comprehensive federal strategy to prevent and end homelessness, Opening Doors. The strategy was released in 2010 and amended in 2015. D.C. has been using the new coordinated entry system since August 2013 with growing progress.
However, criticism of the assessment process is not far behind. Social worker and activist Julie Turner criticized that system, while beginning successfully, started to lag after a few years once more providers vied for funding.
In particular, Turner said that the coordinated entry system only addresses the needs of people considered to be homeless by its funder, HUD, whose definition is narrower than that of the U.S. Departments of Education or Health and Human Services. She estimates that the system only serves one third of the District’s homeless community.
John Mendez, director of outreach and special projects at Bethesda Cares, candidly addressed this issue:
“If you have 10 family members who need an apartment and you only have one apartment to give — who’s it going to be? It’s a tough decision but necessary — you need to give it to the one who needs it the most. That’s what coordinated entry is, and then you go from there.”
Mendez also spoke to the greater issues that Turner discussed in an editorial piece for Street Sense: the need for gainful, permanent employment and affordable housing. The need for a larger systemic solution.
“Neighborhoods need to think about how when you want to go to the Starbucks just a few blocks down the street from your condo, your barista at that Starbucks may need to travel miles out of town just to get to work every day,” Mendez illustrated.
One needed change identified by Sinclair-Smith from Montgomery County is that systems of care often do not coordinate. She described people discharged from psychiatric institutions and jails as feeding into homelessness if they do not have a support network.
Yet it was collaboration and data sharing that Matt Leslie of Virginia’s Department of Veteran Services cited as propelling the state to reach functional zero. “We’re not fixing poverty, we’re fixing homelessness,” Leslie said. “[But] you can’t do one without the other … it’s not a bubble you live in.”
When crafting systemic solutions, Mendez of Bethesda Cares warned that you can’t “get into the business of judging someone — of ‘they don’t deserve this or deserve that.’ All of those healthy anti-poverty measures have to be in place,” Mendez said. “If we don’t have a healthy educational system, community mental health system — in some ways the system will fail that person. Note how I said that. The system fails the person.”