Coalition provides help, homes for local vets living on streets

In 2010, President Obama launched Opening Doors, the first national strategic program aimed at preventing and ending homelessness among military veterans in the United States. 

Among other things, the program bolstered the Housing and Urban Development-Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing (HUD-VASH) program (already deployed to some extent in Tampa since 2008), which provides housing vouchers tied to supportive services to veterans at the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).  

The Tampa Housing Authority (THA) has been granted 783 VASH vouchers to date contributing to an enormous decline -- about 78 percent since 2011 -- in veteran homelessness in Hillsborough County.  

“It’s important that we support veterans across the board. HUD has gone a long way to help solve the problems of not just vets but everyone out there on the street,” says Jerome Ryans, President and Chief Executive of the Tampa Housing Authority. “Once you’ve got housing, it makes all the difference -- you’re able to go out and seek employment. It’s awful hard to do anything else, training programs or look for a job, if you don’t have a home.”

Housing First philosophy 

Ryans’ comments reflect what is known as the Housing First philosophy, the approach now embraced by HUD across the nation, that prioritizes immediate, permanent housing as a primary strategy for ending homelessness.

“Our VASH program is a Housing First program, different than other traditional programs, which would require they seek [for example] mental health, medical treatment, and then they would get housing,” notes Parvin Thomas, a VASH case manager for the VA. “VASH does the opposite: housing is not a prize that you get at the end of all your treatment -- we feel it is a right that people have. And then we wrap supportive services around them. That is one way this is innovative. And it brings dignity.”

The road to homelessness for veterans is not necessarily unlike the one for non-veterans: It is typically marked by a series of financial and personal losses. And it doesn’t take a lot of insight or imagination to understand that finding a permanent home allows people to get their lives together.

One veteran’s journey 

Veteran and mother, Tabetha Woods’ living situation started to unravel when she ran out of her GI Bill funding for college and she couldn’t find a job to pay for rent, eventually leading briefly to homelessness. She describes herself as lucky because after only a short stint in a shelter, she was placed in transitional housing, and then the VASH program. She and her daughter now live in an apartment in the USF area. Since then, and with the support of VA services, Woods has obtained full-time employment and hopes to finish her studies down the line, possibly in nursing. 

John C., a Vietnam vet, and Jeff Chapman, who was drafted during the same era and served stateside in Naval Air, both suffered from alcoholism among other issues, marital losses and in the case of Chapman, successive losses of his homes first to Hurricane Andrew, then fire, then foreclosure. Both men spent years being homeless, in shelters or on the street, before they were able to get a VASH voucher. A permanent home, both say, has been critical to stabilizing and rebuilding their lives. 

“It positively made a difference -- I got into this place and it’s pretty much been part of the puzzle to save my life,” says John C. “The foundation for me was the apartment.”   

With the support of several VA services, coincidentally, both men have been sober for seven years. 

Roll call for homeless vets

Across the country, the homeless are formally counted once a year in what is known as a “point-in-time” (PIT) census, usually at the end of January. In Tampa, however, because of the Gasparilla festivities, the counting takes place a little later, at the end of February. 

Under the direction of the Tampa Hillsborough Homeless Initiative (THHI), teams of volunteers, 300-400 total, deploy to eight area zones, homeless hubs of sorts, throughout Hillsborough County and survey everyone out on the street at that time. 

The THHI questionnaire asks whether the person is a veteran. This years’ results showed that vets made up about 10 percent of the total homeless population, the grand majority of which were single men, for a total of 181 veterans -- a 42 percent decrease from just the year prior. At this level, ending this population’s homelessness in Tampa seems within reach, and Antoinette Hayes Triplett, CEO of the THHI thinks it is, even “by the end of the year.”

Once the homeless vets are identified through the PIT or other events or services they are already receiving, they are screened by the VA for eligibility for the VASH program. From there, THA screens them for income eligibility (e.g. if the family has a stable income that allows them to pay their rent with just 30-40 percent of their income, they are considered self-sufficient and ineligible for the program) and if a veteran is awarded a voucher, the family will pay a portion of rent based on his or her income and the difference is covered by THA, within what is considered reasonable. Registered sex offenders are not permitted to participate in the program.

Challenges in finding homes

There are other challenges to getting veterans housed, of course.

Lack of affordable housing, for one. “Our housing stock in the last 2-3 years has diminished exponentially, it is very challenging to find appropriate housing,” says Thomas of the VA.

Some vets have unique challenges often related to their service, including PTSD, mental or physical health issues and substance abuse. While the VA has various programs and services to address those issues with local veterans, they have no way of erasing the digital toll that these problems leave behind in the form of poor credit histories and criminal records that make them ineligible to meet the owner’s screening criteria.

To address this, THA conducts workshops to educate and promote renting to vets, particularly the chronically homeless, where owners were invited to understand the benefits of renting to homeless vets. 

“Because the vets have case management, [the owners] have a mediator to help with any problems. It’s been a very successful program,” says Margaret Jones, Director of Assisted Housing who runs the VASH program on the THA side. She says more than 100 owners attended a workshop in 2015 and her agency will be hosting another workshop later this year.

Community and collaboration

What is clear, is that ending homelessness – veteran or otherwise - is a collaborative community effort. In addition to the partnership between THA and the VA, “the city [Tampa], the county [Hillsborough], the Homeless Initiative, churches – a lot of them!” are involved, notes Ryans, reflecting on the many agencies and organizations supporting the initiatives.  

Local businesses support homeless veteran events with food donations and sponsorships; Ashley Furniture has donated $150,000 worth of furniture. Even the tech community has gotten involved – the Tampa Innovation Alliance dedicated a hackathon in June called “Gimme Shelter,” resulting in apps to support the homeless, including one by Accusoft that will likely be used to streamline the THHI PIT survey process in the next homeless census.
Tampa, says Ryans “is a community that cares about the vets.”

This story is supported by the Tampa Housing Authority. Pasted below are links to other stories supported by THA. Comments? Contact 83 Degrees.
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Read more articles by Kendra Langlie.

Kendra Langlie is a freelance writer and communications consultant for regional and global businesses. Though she has always been passionate about arts and culture, she spent many years in the tech and B2B corporate worlds both in the U.S. and abroad. With a degree in Economics and International Relations from The American University in Washington, DC, she considers politics her favorite sport and follows it avidly with as much humor as she can muster. Based in the Carrollwood neighborhood of Tampa, Kendra is a mother and wife, a news junkie, and lover of all things creative.