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Virginia Becomes 1st State to "End" Veteran Homelessness

The state hasn't declared victory in the war against veteran homelessness, but officials say they have won a key battle.

By Hugh Lessig

The state hasn't declared victory in the war against veteran homelessness, but officials say they have won a key battle.

Virginia has, as of now, the resources to house any homeless veteran who seeks help. They're calling it a "functional end" to homelessness among the state's 800,000 veterans.

Gov. Terry McAuliffe was scheduled to announce the achievement Wednesday morning at a Veterans Day celebration at the Virginia War Memorial in Richmond.

The state can never eliminate homelessness, officials say. A lost job or family dispute can put someone on the street without notice. A functional end to homelessness, however, means veterans living on the street can move into permanent housing within an average of 90 days of connecting with the right community-based response and service system.

And those systems are up and running throughout Virginia.

A state fact sheet puts it another way: A functional end to veteran homelessness means every community has "a sustainable, systematic response in place that ensures homelessness is prevented whenever possible, or is otherwise a rare, brief and non-recurring experience."

Veteran homelessness crosses federal, state and local lines, and no single idea or program led to Wednesday's announcement. Better communication and information-sharing across agencies helped a great deal, said Matt Leslie, director of housing development with the Virginia Department of Veteran Services.

"This is really a milestone," he said, "but we're always kind of ending veteran homeless."

In Hampton Roads, providers leaned on a federal program known as HUD-VASH, which moves veterans into permanent housing and provides caseworkers to check on their progress. The acronym stands for Housing and Urban Development -- Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing.

They also developed standard release-of-information forms across the system, whether for a government agency or nonprofit group. Providers began using a common assessment tool that allowed homeless veterans to be ranked in terms of need. They might not need HUD-VASH, for example, but could qualify for another sort of help.

In Hampton Roads, Leslie noted how Peninsula and South Hampton Roads providers are meeting to share information.

Since October 2014, 1,432 homeless veterans in Virginia have moved into a permanent home of their choice, according to McAuliffe. He said Virginia will take the lessons it learned and apply to a larger goal: a functional end to chronic homelessness among all Virginians by the end of 2017.

Progress was evident in Hampton Roads this summer, when several providers expressed their optimism to the Daily Press that more veterans were being housed every day.

"A year ago, if every single homeless veteran came in off the street on any given night, we'd be busting at the seams to find shelter placement for them," said Charlotte Dillow, executive director of HELP, which runs shelters and transitional housing. "Now, that's not the case."

Not all homeless people are veterans, of course, but because Hampton Roads has such a high percentage of former service members, the percentage of veterans in HELP's homeless shelters can be more than 50 percent, Dillow said at the time.

Some homeless veterans might not want permanent housing.

"The hardest to house are those that are not engaged," said Leslie. "As many times as we're going out, they're still not wanting to be engaged. We can't force people to be housed, but we have to continue to try and engage them."

(c)2015 the Daily Press (Newport News, Va.)

Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.
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