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How Phoenix ended homelessness among vets

Jan. 23, 2014 - 08:24PM   |  
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Phoenix last month was credited as the first city to end chronic homelessness among military veterans, part of a nationwide push. In an interview in Washington on Thursday with USA TODAYís Capital Download, Mayor Greg Stanton discusses how the city did it and what it means. Questions and answers have been edited for length and clarity.

Q: How big a problem was this in Phoenix?

A: This is a crisis around the country. ... In a tragic irony, many veterans, because of what they experienced in combat, incur PTSD or other conditions. And that is a factor, a key factor in what caused their homelessness. ... We had about 220 chronically homeless veterans just a couple years ago. They had been on the streets for an average of eight years.

Q: How did you address it?

A: I know the stimulus program was much debated and criticized, but the ability to have housing was in part caused by the fact that HUD and the VA allowed for additional vouchers because of the stimulus ó housing vouchers that allowed cities like Phoenix to have the amount of housing necessary to get the veterans immediately into a housing situation.

Q: What worked best?

A: If there are real heroes of this story, these are the navigators. Navigators are the people that, working through community non-profits ... go out on the streets and they talk to these homeless individuals, try to coax them into a housing situation. ... Most of the navigators are formerly homeless themselves. Many of them are veterans themselves. ...

And then the key is this: Make sure you have the support services. Itís one thing to put a roof over a chronically homeless veteran, but itís another thing to provide the support services to keep them off the streets. Mental health services. Health care. Maybe itís substance-abuse treatment. So you got to make sure you have not just the housing but the support services to break the cycle of homelessness.

Q: You used a model called ďHousing First.Ē

A: In the old model, if somebody had, for example, a substance-abuse issue but they couldnít break their habit, they would no longer be eligible for housing. In a Housing First model, we understand that if someone has been on the streets for a long time, and been abusing drugs or alcohol for a long time, it may take a while for them to be able to break that issue in their lives. So the fact that theyíre continuing to use, you donít have them lose their housing. ...

Our retention rate, our success rate using this model has been 94 percent, significantly above the national average.

Q: Would your plan work elsewhere?

A: Obviously, itís a lot more expensive in other cities where housing is more expensive. But the model itself of putting a roof over someoneís head, wrapping support services around them, figuring out what is causing their homelessness, and making sure youíre working on that particular issue, of course, thatís a model thatís going to work in cities around the country.

Q: What didnít work?

A: One of the challenging issues ... was the perception of housing for homeless or affordable housing. Sometimes when you try to place housing of this type in a part of your city, there might be resistance. One of the challenges but also the opportunities was really to educate people that if you do it right and you do it well ... housing for people that need a little help as they get back on their feet and get back into the middle class is a good thing. And it can be designed very well and it can be a great addition to a particular neighborhood.

Q: The not-in-my-backyard syndrome?

A: Yes.

Q: Are the challenges different for younger veterans than older ones?

A: I guess that was one of the most surprising things for me is how many younger veterans, veterans of the recent conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, ended up on the streets in such a short period of time after returning. ... A lot of these younger veterans are concerned as they go through the job-search process, they feel that thereís such a negative perception about the PTSD, that in some cases they feel itís better to leave their military service off their resume as they apply for jobs. That was shocking for me. Itís a very sobering thing.

Q: Whatís the financial impact?

A: It is a lot less expensive to provide housing and support services and help someone break the cycle of homelessness, get them employed, than it is in the cost of having someone on the streets. Not only is it good for humanity, itís good for the bottom line as well.

Q: Whatís the broader impact?

A: The lessons we have learned in ending chronic homelessness in the veteran population are literally the exact same lessons we will utilize in ending chronic homelessness among the broader community. ...

I think the main benefit is, Number 1, helping these veterans who served our country. And, two, to get people to think that problems that seemed almost impossible to solve, if you really put your mind to it, if you really put your resources and create a teamwork situation, you can solve it. These things are not unsolvable issues. So I think itís given a lot of people hope that other seemingly intractable problems are solvable.

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