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Solving veteran homelessness in the U.S.

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In the last few years, the Department of Veterans Affairs has revolutionized its service delivery, partnering with homeless services organizations like Friendship Place, in an unprecedented effort to solve veteran homelessness in the nation.

This initiative, which receives equal support from both sides of the aisle on Capitol Hill, is the result of the VA's visionary planning.

A few years ago, faced with chronic homelessness among Vietnam era veterans and the mounting pressure of returning troops from Iraq and Afghanistan, the VA sought support from the federal government to launch a multi-pronged initiative to house or re-house veterans and their families.

Working with community-based non-profit organizations, the administration, under the leadership of Secretary Shinseki, has been able to stretch the bounds of its own service constraints in an effective way. Partnering non-profits can pick up where the VA leaves off by, for instance, entering into agreements with local landlords and other service providers in a more flexible way as private entities.

Such public-private partnerships have helped propel these VA-sponsored programs to the forefront of the race to end homelessness in the US, putting it well ahead of many local jurisdictions where the response to homelessness has sometimes been impacted by policy challenges.

So, how did the VA do it?

Well, first, it took a hard look at its practices and worked to make them absolutely person-centered and outcomes-oriented. This has taken a fair amount of research. But, lo and behold, the VA is now hitting some pretty high notes on the rehabilitation stage. Rehab aficionados are finding the VA's affiliation with CARF - the champion of rehabilitation standards in the US - particularly impressive, while homeless service providers are thrilled with the VA's adoption of the Housing First model.

The vets coming through these VA-funded programs are seeing the difference. They're rapidly rebuilding their lives, and doing so with dignity - an outcome echoed throughout the various service settings involved.

From the start, the VA decided to "work smart" by offering services based on needs - no more, no less than necessary - the result being a palette of both effective and cost-effective services. I think a great example of this is the careful delineation between SSVF services and HUD-VASH permanent supportive housing. The first is intended to stabilize veterans and their households in up to 6 months by providing them with homelessness prevention services or by helping then get re-housed. Supports for these individuals and families are rebuilt through benefit applications, job placement assistance and other vital services during that period.

The program targets veteran households that are still fairly resilient but need immediate short-term assistance to resolve their housing crises. Two years into this program the VA has helped thousands of vets maintain or regain stability through these interventions. This is the fastest and cheapest way to help vets who are likely to stabilize quickly.

The second prong in the VA's approach is permanent supportive housing for veterans with greater challenges. This program offers services and long-term housing subsidies to vets who require more intensive supports. To establish this program, the VA was successful in securing assistance from Housing & Urban Development to supplement its own budget while farming out some of the work to local non-profits who provide the actual services to the veterans in order to secure specialty services like mental health services.

The partnership with VA has allowed Friendship Place to make a difference in the lives of people like Shelley Gilbert. It didn't matter that Shelley had served in the military as a member of the US Coast Guard, or that she had worked for two decades as a healthcare professional. It didn't even matter that one of her daughters and two grandkids lived with her. When she fell on hard times and wasn't able to pay rent, she was forced into a ruthless cycle of nights spent in motels, shelters and on couches. She was homeless.

When she reflects on her experience, one night in particular comes to mind. "I slept in the bus stop. It was snowing, raining, and about 25 degrees out," she says. "That was the most humbling night of my life." When Shelley found the VA's hotline number, everything changed. They connected her with Friendship Place and within 3 weeks, our staff was helping her fill out apartment applications.

Now housed and working full time, Shelley sets aside time in her busy schedule to give back. She shares her story with groups of students and volunteers at Friendship Place, delivering a message of hope and possibility. "Just don't give up," she says. Shelley's story hits home with me, and solidifies my belief that incredible accomplishments can be made when we work hard, and most important, work together.