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U.S. push helps stem veteran homelessness, but Tampa lags

TAMPA — A three-year pilot program created to help end veteran homelessness was largely successful, but those taking part in Tampa had more lingering problems and nearly double the average rate of ongoing homelessness compared to those in four other locations, according to a study of the program released Thursday.

Tampa-area homeless advocates say the study’s findings highlight the region’s economic and housing challenges. It also highlights other challenges — Tampa’s generally older veteran’s population and a lower rate of participation in opportunities for training and education.

The Veterans Homeless Prevention Demonstration program kicked off in Tampa and four other locations around the country in 2011 as part of the Obama administration’s efforts to put all veterans into homes by the end of this year.

The administration is seeking to create what it calls a “Functional Zero” level of veterans homelessness, meaning “every veteran has access to the supports they need and want to avoid staying on the street and move quickly to permanent housing,” according to the Department of Veterans Affairs.

As of last week, there were still about 150 veterans and family members homeless in Hillsborough County, said Sara Romeo, executive director of Tampa Crossroads, which administered the demonstration program on behalf of what’s now known as the Tampa Hillsborough Homeless Initiative.

The three-year demonstration program was designed to find ways to end homelessness quickly and to prevent homelessness for veterans at risk, by coordinating efforts of the federal Departments of Housing and Urban Development, Labor and Veterans Affairs.

The $10 million program offered short-term financial assistance — including assistance for rent, utilities, and arrears — as well as case management by VA social workers and Labor Department employment services.

Participating veterans, many of whom served in the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts, experienced “substantial improvements in housing stability, employment and income that persisted after exiting the demonstration,” according to HUD, which ran the program in central Texas; San Diego; Tacoma, Washington; and northern New York, as well as Tampa.

During that time, the program served 4,824 adults and children, including 2,023 veterans,

The study, conducted by Silber & Associates and the Urban Institute, found that six months after leaving the demonstration program, 76 percent of the veterans studied lived in their own place, employment nearly doubled, and monthly incomes grew by 41 percent.

“This study shows us that our collaboration across federal agencies is working,” HUD Secretary Julián Castro said in a prepared statement. “By providing a roof and a place to call home, we’re creating the stability needed to find employment and transition back into civilian life.”

“Prevention is critical to ending homelessness among veterans but it’s also the hardest part,” said Mary Cunningham, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute and lead author of the report. “The promising nature of these early findings suggests that these new approaches are worth further testing.”

Still, Tampa veterans faced the biggest ongoing challenges, according to the study, which interviewed more than 500 veterans who took part in the program, including 100 in Tampa.

In a survey of veterans taken between six months and a year after participating in the program, Tampa had the lowest percentage of veterans living in their own place and the highest percentages of veterans who were homeless or living with others.

The study also showed that veterans entering the program in Tampa faced the biggest challenges.

Tampa reported the highest percentage of veterans already homeless upon entering the program, at 19.4 percent, nearly double the national average of 10.5 percent. They also reported the lowest percentage of veterans with jobs and the highest percentage of those not working.

Among those working, Tampa had the lowest percentage in full-time employment. Among all veterans in the program, Tampa had the lowest rate of full-time workers.

Follow-up interviews showed that the employment picture for Tampa veterans improved, with 46.1 percent working of and those, 57 percent having full time jobs.

Income, however, remained an issue, according to the study.

Tampa veterans had the second-lowest mean monthly income when interviewed as they left the program, $1,290, and during the later follow up, $1,311. Only northern New York reported lower levels.

One reason for Tampa’s showing may be that local veterans also reported the lowest percentages of participation in school or training 20.2 percent compared to the national average of 29 percent, as well as the lowest percentage of regular schooling leading to a degree, 10.3 percent compared to 19.7 percent, and the lowest percentage of veterans receiving GI Bill benefits for education at follow-up, 12 percent compared to 16.9 percent.

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Tampa and the other demonstration program sites were located near major military bases, in this case MacDill Air Force Base.

The sites were selected based on a number of factors: the number of homeless veterans in the geographic area, the number of Afghanistan and Iraq war veterans who accessed healthcare through the VA between October 2002 and the first quarter of December 2009, the number of homeless veterans reported through the VA, the range and diversity of military represented in the selected sites, access to and availability of VA health care, overall geographic distribution, and capacity of the community to carry out the demonstration project.

More than 400 Tampa veterans were helped by the program, according to Cunningham, the study’s principal author.

She said Tampa has generally older veterans, more of them with no income, lower rates of full-time employment and high rates of reported depression. Cunningham also cited “an uneveness in case management and a local employment partnership that was not as strong as wanted” as other factors contributing to Tampa’s lingering homelessness problems.

The findings show just how challenging it is to help the homeless in Tampa, said Romeo, with Tampa Crossroads.

“Our lingering issues had more to do with our local resources than anything,” she said.

Tampa does not have adequate affordable housing, said Romeo, which is an ongoing problem.

“We had a very large unemployed general population due to the economy at that time, and we were experiencing the most foreclosures in our history,” she said. “So I believe that all of this came together to create the ‘perfect storm’ for homeless vets.”

The study results pointed out other problems as well, Romeo said, including a low hourly employment rate, “nearly non-existent” state assistance to veterans, an already large general homeless population — the third biggest in the country, consistent with its overall population rank — “with little or no systems of care in place.”

After that initial program for homeless veterans expired, Tampa became one of the first communities to switch to what’s called the “Housing First” model, said Romeo, which places people into housing immediately whether they have income or employment.

“Once they are housed we begin intensive case management for up to six months to deal with the issues that result in a vet becoming homeless,” she said.

The pilot project, said Romeo, was a precursor to the current Support Services for Veteran Families program, which she said has been very successful.

“I think the most important concept that came out of this report was the evidence we brought out to show that “Housing First” is the correct model to use for homeless individuals,” she said.

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Since 2010, more than 360,000 veterans and their family members have been permanently housed, rapidly rehoused, or prevented from falling into homelessness through support provided by VA and HUD, according to the VA.

According to the most recent HUD homeless count, in January, 2015, there were 47,725 homeless veterans, which made up about 11 percent of all homeless adults.

“The VA, along with HUD and hundreds of community organizations across the country have reduced the estimated number of homeless veterans by more than 36 percent since 2010,” according to VA spokeswoman Jan Northstar. “VA’s joint program with HUD has made available housing vouchers for more than 79,000 veterans.”

She added that VA is “expanding other successful programs, such as Supportive Services for Veteran Families, to prevent tens of thousands of veterans and their families from becoming homeless each year.”

Ending homelessness “is a complex issue that takes a team to achieve,” said Karen Collins, a spokeswoman for the James A. Haley Veterans’ Hospital.

Collins said Haley has used about 87 percent of its vouchers under a joint HUD-VA program to house veterans.

That means “781 formerly homeless veterans have permanent housing,” she said. “Our goal is to house at least 34 more homeless veterans by the end of January 2016, and we are optimistic that we will meet that goal.”

In addition, Collins said the 76 beds in the Grant and Per Diem transitional housing program and the 45 beds in the contract housing program “generally remain filled at about a 90-95 percent capacity, so we are effectively utilizing the resources we have to help end veteran homelessness.”

Haley, she said, “remains committed to working with our partners to reach functional zero and effectively end homelessness among veterans.”

Yet the problems linger.

Romeo said that the Tampa area still lacks adequate affordable housing for low income families, a community-wide system of care to prevent or rapidly rehouse veterans, enough local emergency shelter beds, or jobs paying a sustainable rate of pay.

In addition, the area has two of the nation’s busiest VA hospitals — the James A. Haley Veterans’ Hospital and the C.W. Bill Young VA Medical Center,

Those hospitals “draw lots of new vets to the area, many of arriving homeless,” she said.

“We cannot find adequate and affordable housing for the last 150 or so veterans and their families now,” said Romeo.

“We have been able to identify 98 percent of homeless vets by name and they have been routed to programs to assist them to housing resources however, without affordable housing they can move into we are in trouble. We are right there in terms of functional zero and we will not give up until the last veteran is home.”

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