Mayor Robert Garcia pledges to end veteran homelessness by year's end. Photos: Jason Ruiz
Mayor Robert Garcia was joined today by officials from the Long Beach Veteran Affairs Healthcare System and the Department of Health and Human Services as they stood in front of the entrance to the VA Hospital to announce another decline in the city’s homeless population and to affirm its pledge to end veteran homelessness by the end of 2015.
The goal is part of a nationwide effort stemming from a challenge handed down from President Barack Obama when Garcia visited the White House last year. The Mayor’s Challenge calls to end veteran homelessness by the end of 2016. Garcia, speaking from a podium situated in front of flags from all branches of the military, recounted that meeting and said that like New Orleans—the first city in the country to eliminate veteran homelessness—Long Beach will do the same a year earlier than the President’s challenge calls for.
“Every single veteran deserves a place to live and that’s why the President initiated the mayor's challenge to end homelessness for our veterans,” Garcia said. “Today we’re announcing and pledging that by the end of this year—by Christmas—all of our veterans that currently remain on the street will remain sheltered within the City of Long Beach.”
According to a survey released last week by the Department of of Health and Human Services, the homeless population citywide was down 18 percent from 2013, but veteran homeless numbers dropped by 43 percent. Since 2011, that number has dwindled from 309 veterans tabulated during the city’s biannual homeless count to just 94 this year, representing an overall decline of 70 percent. Over 500 of those previously homeless veterans have found housing at the Villages at Cabrillo.
The term elimination was one that came into question, as Garcia recognized that veteran homelessness was something that’s not going to stop overnight, and that the city would have to continue to address it as more veterans return home and others fall into homelessness.
As to whether an “actual zero” population is attainable, Community Health Bureau Manager Susan Price said that while the city does hope to get to “actual zero,” their calculations are based on a “functional zero,” meaning that it houses more homeless veterans per month than are currently on the streets.
“Does our work ever end? Probably not,” Price said. “But as far as our ability given the resources we have available to us to expand the safety net, to reduce the length of time that a veteran is homeless, experiences homelessness, and the rapid entry into permanent housing, that is really what our goal is.”
Director of Health and Human Services Kelly Colopy said that through the collaborative efforts of her department with the city and the VA, between 12-15 homeless veterans are being sheltered every month. She also highlighted that through federal funding, which has provided the city with over $6 million in funding, the city has been able to offer 664 housing vouchers since 2008, an integral part to combatting the issue.
“It is a bold commitment the mayor has made and we’re on track to meet it,” Colopy said.
Long Beach Veteran Affairs Healthcare System Director Michael Fisher said that the growth of his staff, which now eclipses 90 full-time employees, and their outreach efforts combined with the work of the city has really helped to keep the morale of his staff up as they close in on eliminating the issue. He was quick to point out that the VA alone cannot be the answer and that it will take the continued support of the city, the health department, the housing authority and the community to continue to ensure that veterans remain off the street and to make sure that the program continues to meet veterans needs.
“This great city has been steadfast in recognizing that the duty and sacrifice given by our veterans benefit us all and that we should all be part of the solution,” Fisher said.
Mechel Stanley, a coordinator with the VA’s program said when the program first started there were lots of holes that were brought to their attention by veterans seeking help. The program would place them in homes that had no furniture and often times lacked safeguards in place to ensure that once the veterans were off the streets they were able to reintegrate into society and build self-esteem.
So the program incorporated nurses, psychiatric care and employment specialists to help veterans find jobs in an effort to take a more holistic approach to veteran homelessness. They also partnered with AmVets, a non-profit that provides furnishings for veterans who have qualified for housing vouchers through the VA and now have homes that are in need of couches, refrigerators and tables.
“We’re more of a multi-disciplinary team,” Stanley said. “We realized that in order to provide services, they really need to be wrap around services.”
Stanley said that the biggest obstacle going forward for the program is real estate. As the city continues to get more and more vets off the streets and place them into homes, the amount of space they have to offer will be critical.
“Give us one unit, gives us two units, if you don’t want to make your whole complex Section 8, we can accept it in one or two units,” Stanley said. “That’s what we need. It’s about community support and community partnership.”
One of the beneficiaries of their more interconnected program was Wayne Hansen, a 50-year-old Navy veteran who was homeless before his mother implored him to seek help at the VA. Hanson said that he thought the hospital only provided medical care and was unaware of the programs that existed to help in other facets of veteran’s lives, including homelessness. He said having a home and a sense of security was just a starting point, the case management that helped him find a job and go back to school were just as crucial to turning his life around.
“I knew I wanted to change my life and it was just getting housed initially,” Hansen said. “But all of those other services and other support really changed my life.”
He stated that while the programs that are in place are helpful in finding housing for veterans, it ultimately comes down them realizing the VA isn’t what it used to be and that people need to have the desire to want to change, something that some of the homeless veterans lack. Hansen added that he was pleased the Commander in Chief was taking a stand to address a real issue facing the veterans returning home from deployments only to find that they don’t have one.
“I have a lot of respect for president Obama and Long Beach and their commitment to make these changes for the homeless veteran population,” Hansen said.