TAMPA — The federal government has a stated goal of eliminating homelessness for veterans by 2015, and although that aim might never be attainable, significant progress has been made nationally. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development counted 57,849 homeless veterans in a single January night in 2013, an 8 percent decline from the previous year and a 24 percent decrease since 2009.
In the Tampa Bay area, the numbers are not so rosy. Instead of dropping, the number of homeless veterans is swelling significantly, according to a February survey of theHillsborough County homeless. The results showed a slight drop in the number of homeless — but a 47 percent bump in the number of homeless veterans and their families, from 170 last year to 250 this year.
Homeless veterans accounted for 11 percent of the homeless population in Hillsborough County, and the spike in their numbers wiped out substantial decreases among other demographics, the survey concluded.
The survey’s results are not surprising, homeless advocates said. They say more military veterans serving overseas are coming home as the drawdown in Afghanistan and elsewhere continues, and the Tampa Bay region is a place where a wide range of services, including veterans hospitals, is available.
“We will have over 250,000 veterans discharged into the state of Florida this year,” said Sara Romeo, executive director of Tampa Crossroads, which offers veterans assistance programs, including transitional and permanent housing options. “That’s a high number of discharges, or soldiers returning.’’
She said another reason the Tampa Bay area has a high number of homeless veterans is this:
“We are sandwiched between two of the biggest veterans hospitals in the United States; Bay Pines (VA Healthcare System) and the (James A.) Haley Veterans’ Hospital,” she said. “They bring in a lot of veterans to the area, veterans who know they can get help from these two great hospitals.”
The number of homeless veterans tallied during the head count probably is low, she said.
“Getting a true count of the veteran population is very difficult,” she said. “Veterans sometimes are leery of being counted; they are mistrusting, particularly the chronically homeless vets. They are suspicious of government agencies, and they don’t want to be counted.”
In the Hillsborough count, the survey revealed glimpses into the lives of homeless veterans:
♦ Of the 236 veterans counted, 113 said they suffered from some sort of mental health disorder;
♦ 82 said they had been homeless for more than a year;
♦ 114 of the veterans and their families said they experienced homelessness just one time, though 65 said they had been homeless on four occasions or more.
♦ 79 said they were homeless mainly because of employment or financial reasons;
♦ 109 said they didn’t know exactly why they were homeless.
Over the past few years, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has increased funding for programs to find homes for veterans and to identify those who are at risk for becoming homeless.
This year, the department has earmarked $1.4 billion for specialized homeless programs and $5.4 billion for health care for homeless vets.
“There are many reasons veterans can become homeless,” according to the Veterans Affairs website, “including poverty, lack of support from family or friends, substance use or mental health challenges that may develop or worsen as a result of trauma they experience while serving.”
Mike Ruelas, 43, of Tampa, and his three children were homeless after he returned from Iraq in 2010. He said he shipped out the year before and his credit was hit by unpaid cellphone bills, delinquent apartment rent and other matters he said he had been told would be taken care of by the government.
He couldn’t get credit to buy a car and was turned away at apartment complexes. The U.S. Army National Guardsman and his three children, ages 6, 7 and 8, were without a permanent address.
“Even though we were homeless,” he said, “we were closer than ever before.”
He said most of the businesses that hired military veterans offered only minimum-wage and low-paying jobs.
“We ended up in motels,” he said, and that ate up a lot of his savings. “The money you save up goes into daily motel expenses; $800 a month,” Ruelas said. “You got to get around, so you rent or lease a car. You try to get your credit back, but the money goes out even quicker.”
He ended up taking a job counseling veterans at Tampa Crossroads.
“Either you give up, lay down, and not do anything but get the assistance,” he said, “or you stand up and get over this hump.”
Part of Ruelas’ job is to match homeless veterans with services offered through Veterans Affairs.
Bob Blackwood, chief of social work service with Veterans Affairs in Tampa, said the department is bumping up its efforts to get homeless veterans off the streets and into permanent housing.
“Our top priority is to not only help the chronically homeless veterans, but those with families as well,” he said.
It’s a struggle that won’t end, he said. The department has close ties with the jails and law enforcement to identify those who may have fallen through the network and a system to identify veterans on the verge of losing their homes.
“We welcome any source who can identify homeless vets,” he said. “Our mission is to meet with every homeless veteran and offer them services. If they are not eligible for VA services, we will steer them to the right resources.”
He said the homeless count conducted in February can be misleading. Some veterans don’t want to be counted, he said. Also, the number of homeless vets last year might have been under-counted, he said, and this year’s count may have been better organized and tallied a truer number.
“I think they had a really thorough count this time,” said Blackwood, who helped during this year’s count.
Blackwood said he is heartened by the numbers of homeless veterans seeking Veterans Affairs benefits in the region. If they seek assistance, he said, the government can offer help.
The key is getting to the veterans who are sleeping in encampments, being treated in emergency rooms or held in jails, he said.
“We have an aggressive outreach program, and it’s been very successful over the past four or five years,” he said.
In Hillsborough County, as with the nation, homeless veterans make up about 11 percent of the overall homeless population. According to the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans, nearly half of the homeless veterans served during the Vietnam era.
Two out of every three homeless vets served at least three years and a third were stationed in a war zone. Eight percent are women.
Randy Brown, director of communications for the coalition, said there are places around the nation where homeless veteran populations bloom in spite of the overall national decline.
The Tampa Bay area, with its veterans’ hospitals, MacDill Air Force Base and warm winters, is one such area, he said.
“It definitely makes sense,” he said. “It’s a warmer climate in the southern states, and that makes it easier to survive if you’re homeless.”
Since 1987, Veterans Affairs’ programs for homeless veterans have emphasized collaboration with community service providers to reach veterans in trouble. The effort has secured nearly 15,000 residential rehabilitative and transitional beds and more than 30,000 permanent beds for homeless veterans across the nation, which the VA says has resulted in a reduction in the number of homeless veterans by 70 percent since 2005.
Brown said the federal government has made available enough funding for services to take veterans off the streets.
“The service network pretty much exists, and there’s enough HUD vouchers to take care of the chronically homeless vets,” Brown said. “It’s just a matter of making sure, now that all the resources are out there, that any gap that exists is bridged.”