By Jeff Gray
When Kevin Orie’s GI Bill housing stipend was cut off by a technicality last summer, the military veteran wasn’t sure where to turn.
The stipend which Orie, who served seven years in the Army and 14 more in the Coast Guard, relied on was dependent on his enrollment in a certain number of college courses. When he was informed that the school he had attended for the past year and a half would not be offering enough summer classes to meet his requirements, the service veteran found himself cut off and with no way to pay his rent.
“The landlord was getting ready to evict my family and I didn’t know what to do,” said the husband and father of five.
Fortunately, Orie was able to get in touch with Veterans First, a veterans housing program run through DC-based Community Council for the Homeless at Friendship Place. Through government funding, the organization was able to pay $4,500 towards Orie’s back-due rent and prevent his eviction.
The support was enough for him to hold him over until he could enroll in fall classes and once again become eligible for GI Bill assistance.
Orie is one of many veterans who have benefited from increased federal funding as part of a nation-wide initiative to ensure housing for former service members. In 2009 President Obama and U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric K. Shineski announced an ambitious goal to completely eradicate veteran homelessness in the US by the year 2015.
“We’re seeing a lot more funding become available to help end homelessness among veterans,” said Kally Canfield, Assistant Director for Veterans First.
Friendship Place was recently awarded a $1 million grant from the Department of Veterans Affairs to fund Veterans First, which, in addition to providing spot assistance to those trying to avoid homelessness like Orie, primarily targets high-risk veterans who have a history of chronic homelessness.
“We’re doing whatever we can to get these people back into housing and stabilize them financially,” said Friendship Place’s Executive Director Jean-Michel Giraud.
The grant has greatly increased the scope of the program. Since funding kicked on October 1, Veterans First has increased from one staff member to nine, and expanded its territory to include the eight counties surrounding the District.
The program is currently supporting 35 vets, 25 of which were homeless at the time of their application.
The success of Veterans First in getting vets off the street reflects a national trend. A 2009 survey concluded that 150,000 veterans were either living on the streets or in shelters on any given day. Since then, officials say, over 90,000 veterans have been housed in the US.
Pathways to Housing DC, the District’s local chapter of the larger national organization created to provide permanent housing to homeless, has also benefited from increased government funding.
To aid its veteran housing initiative, the program receives 50 housing subsidies vouchers per year through a government program know as Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing. VASH, as it’s known, is a joint venture of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the VA that combines rental assistance with case management and clinical services in an effort to move homeless veterans into permanent housing.
After being screened for eligibility, voucher recipients are placed in private-market rental housing. Participants contribute 30 percent of their monthly income, whatever that amount may be, towards rent, and the rest is picked up by the government.
Many housing organizations have adopted the Housing First model pioneered by Pathways. The model challenges traditional concepts of homeless care by placing individuals in permanent residences without first requiring rehabilitation or other forms of treatment services.
“The traditional way of providing shelter is to put the hoops before the housing and make people jump through them, whether it be sobriety or getting a job or getting compliant with medication,” explains Will Connelly, Director of Outreach at Pathways DC.
Developed by the national Pathways organization, Housing First has caught on quickly across the nation, including at Friendship Place.
“There are no questions asked at the door, no conditions,” Giraud says of Friendship Place’s acceptance policy. “It’s come as you are. Come rebuild your life with us.”
Housing First utilizes the“scattered site” approach, which places participants in private apartments instead of congregate housing. In an effort to avoid the perception of group housing, programs like Pathways DC never rent more than 20 percent of a building’s units. According to Pathways’ website this “fosters a sense of home and self-determination,” helping to “speed the reintegration of clients into the community.”
“We’ve always believed in small community-based housing,” adds Giraud, whose organization currently serves 165 people living in non-traditional apartments. “It helps the person rebuild their life faster.”
Participants are also allowed to determine what area their rental property will be located, a choice which Connelly asserts is important in the re-housing process.
“It’s been shown that if someone is given that choice they are more successful in maintaining housing.”
Veterans receiving HUD-VASH vouchers are also provided with clinical services from VA medical facilities or community-based outreach programs.
Pathways DC administers this clinical care through multi-disciplinary outreach teams called Assertive Case Management Teams. Each ACT team is comprised of a range of professionals, from a psychiatrist and nurse practitioner to vocational specialists.
“The idea is to provide someone with housing and then wrap the services they need around them,” says Connelly.
With a ratio of roughly ten clients per team member, these ACT teams are able to provide intensive individualized care tailored to the specific needs of each person, and can deliver care in the comfort of a private residence.
The progress of local organizations like Pathways DC and Friendship Place provides hope for the continued progress of the federal government’s campaign to end veteran homelessness, and success stories like Kevin Orie serve as reminders to the importance of the mission.
“[Without help], me and my five kids would have been out, and I have no idea where,” contends the grateful vet. “Veterans First was a Godsend.”