Ending Veteran Homelessness in DC and Beyond


Robert Couse-Baker//Flickr

On December 10, The Way Home Campaign hosted a panel of non-profit leaders working towards housing homeless veterans, and a formerly homeless veteran, to answer the question “what does it take to end veteran homelessness in D.C.?”

According to a report by the Veterans NOW project,  there are only 213 veterans left in the District that need housing that have been identified as in need of housing.  Veterans NOW is a collaboration between 11 government agencies and nonprofit organizations such as U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs and Catholic Charities, to end veteran homelessness in Washington, D.C.  The project has housed 1,287 veterans.

CEB, a practice insight and technology company, released a report complied by their team of pro bono researchers that analyzed the success of the District in order to then apply the findings to ending homelessness in general.

The team interviewed formerly homeless veterans, members of the Veterans Now coalition, and leaders of the local non-profits involved in this effort.

The report identified two major necessary conditions that needed to be present to end veteran homelessness and three key strategies that were successfully implemented to do so.

In order to end veteran homelessness, community leadership needed to be committed to solving the problem. Part of the reason why the District was so successful in reducing the number of homeless veterans was because there was the political will to do so.

Councilmember Elissa Silverman co-sponsored the event and mentioned how the state of Utah has recently ended veteran homelessness.

“The state of Utah said, these are residents of our state who have served our country, who were ready to sacrifice their lives for us and we need to give them the respect and dignity that they deserve, which is finding them a home,” said Silverman. “I believe they have found permanent housing for every veteran who they have been able to identify who needs housing.”

Ben Cattell Noll, Training Project Coordinator of Friendship Place, made the point that if there is enough political will, something can be done to help all of the people experiencing homelessness, not just veterans.

“A lot of the idea behind starting with veteran homelessness was to show this political will and to show that it can be done,” said Noll. “We harnessed resources, a tremendous amount of resources, and veteran homelessness has decreased at a much higher rate than homelessness in general. This report is true for veterans and it is true for everybody else.”

Another essential condition that needs to be in place before the District can end homelessness is having adequate housing resources. The federal and D.C. governments have allocated sufficient funds to meet the current and ongoing need for veteran housing, according to Veterans NOW.

The CEB report identified three key strategies essential to ending veteran homelessness in the District: the Housing First initiative, coordination on a data-driven plan, and individualized services.

James Bell is a veteran who served in the Persian Gulf era and until recently he was homeless. He took the assessment for housing on August 4 and moved into his new home on the 28, making his rehousing experience a fast one. He was one of the panel members at the event.

Even though Bell was housed in less than three weeks after taking his assessment, he had been homeless for 20 years before that.

Bell has endured multiple injuries and substance abuse problems over the years. He has metal plates in his head and face. He has broken his hand five to six time fighting. His PTSD got worse over the years because of the violence and instability he endured while living on the street.

“Because I didn’t have housing, everything else in my life would fall apart every time I tried. Just imagine trying to get a good job,” said Bell.

As an electronic technician, Bell could demand anywhere from $20 to $25 an hour for his experience and skills. But working was not something that Bell could do.

“If you don’t have a home base, somewhere to go home and take a shower, pick your feet up, everything that everyone does when they get home from work, you can’t do that,” said Bell. “And it creates a big problem. It takes a big toll on your self-esteem and every other area of your life is not manageable because no one can do anything without the normal amenities of life.”

Right before he got an assessment and received housing, Bell got into a car accident as a result of his PTSD. He had a job in Brunswick, Md., which was 4 hours away to the area where he was frequenting.

. “Because of the long hours, taking on too much, driving four hours a day, after working eight hours, I would end up taking uppers to stay up, and, when I wanted to get some sleep, I would do something that was a depressor,” said Bell. 

This lifestyle took a toll on Bell’s mental and physical health and one day when he was driving, he heard a loud bang and lost it.

“It was probably a dump truck or something; I don’t know what it was. I thought someone was shooting at me so went into combat mode. Driving erratically,” said Bell. “Long story short, I crashed into something. I don’t remember what it was, all I know it that it was somebody’s front yard and that took me on a short trip to different local hospitals.”

During one of these hospital visits, he received his housing assessment and was put on the right track to having a home.

Bell is one of the success stories tied to the Housing First model, one of the key strategies used to end veteran homelessness.

“This program works. I don’t know exactly which one it is or if it a compilation of all of them, but it works and all of the issues that I have, all the barriers that I have, not all of them are gone but all of them are better,” said Bell. “Housing First, that concept does work. I am living proof.”

Ben Cattell Noll made the point that the programs should not expect their clients to be housing-ready. The programs themselves need to be client-ready in order to provide the best services possible.

“We shouldn’t keep people hostage in their homelessness until they solve these problems because we know that they can get better and the best foundation to do that is in housing, not out on the streets or in shelters or in your car,” he said.

Another key strategy is coordinating all the services that the District offers homeless veterans in order to be more efficient in providing housing. The goal was to have a “no wrong door approach” meaning that if a homelessness veteran went to one service provider, they would actually be working with the entire system.

Data collection has also been improved to provide real numbers in order to better identify individuals in need and to track their progress.

“[We are] moving away from ‘yeah we helped some people, this feels nice’ to ‘how many people do we need to help to get to zero? What does that look like? What did we do last month, what are we going to do differently this month to improve?” said Noll.

The third key strategy used to successfully end veteran homelessness is individualizing services, making sure that homeless veterans are treated like humans and not just an item on a checklist.

Kevin Morton, Health Care for Homeless Veteran Coordinator for the D.C. Veterans Administration, explains the progress that has been made over the years in terms of tailoring services to the individual.

“Before it was the opposite; I knew everything and I’m going to fix you. When you walked through, I had a script,” said Morton. “[Now] all you young social workers, when your client comes in, you talk to them like you want them to talk to you and you provide the needs that they need.”

Noll shut down the claims that funding these housing and services is too expensive and that it would not be possible during a recession.

The average cost of emergency services per year per person living on the street was almost $41,000. Permanent supportive housing for that person per year cost D.C. $15,889, said Noll. The numbers speak for themselves.

“It is not free to have people living on the streets. It seems like it might be although they are just staying outside, but it’s not free,” said Noll. “There is a cost to that individual and there is a cost to our society in actual monetary value and not just in that sort of moral that we need to abide by.”

Issues |Veterans

Region |Washington DC

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We believe ending homelessness begins with listening to the stories of those who have experienced it.