Fewer homeless veterans, but VA's deadline looms

Navy veteran Darryl Riley spent almost 25 years in and out of homeless shelters before landing in the U.S. VETS' "Veterans in Progress" program earlier this spring.

"This time feels totally different," the 55-year-old veteran said. "In the shelters, they're just putting a roof over your head, some food into you. Here, the accommodations are nicer, and they have employment programs to help get you trained for jobs.

"I never had that chance in the past."

After leaving the Navy, Riley worked on construction sites around the Washington, D.C., area, but never managed keep enough savings to weather downturns in the job market.

He found out about the 85-bed transitional housing program — funded through new federal grants — at a job fair just a block from his latest shelter stop. After a flurry of assistance from group officials, he's in a downtown apartment and a new job training program, with a goal to find work quickly.

"I've only got a few years left until retirement," he joked. "I've got a lot of catching up to do."

Riley's plan illustrates the success of recent efforts to end veterans homelessness by providing better outreach and sustainable resources for troubled individuals.

But it also shows the challenge still ahead, with tens of thousands of veterans like Riley still on the streets or in danger of returning there.

Year-end goal

Five years ago, the White House vowed to end veterans homelessness by the end of 2015. At the time, even VA officials admitted such a goal was overly ambitious.

Since then, the number of homeless veterans has been reduced by more than 25,000. When the 2014 numbers are released later this summer, officials expect around 40,000 to 45,000, to remain, a figure that has shrunk about 40 percent since 2010.

Advocates say that's impressive, but also acknowledge that getting to zero in the next few months is a massive challenge.

"The math on that doesn't make sense to me," said Steve Peck, CEO of U.S. VETS.

"It was great to have that goal, and putting out that deadline really focused a lot of attention on the issue. But now, my fear is that cities may try to get to get to zero instead of preparing for long-term solutions, and look at the problem beyond 2015."

At the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans conference, most officials and advocates said the zero goal for December was less important than the momentum of having that goal in place for the last five years.

Baylee Crone, executive director for the coalition, said the coordination among nonprofit groups, federal agencies and local municipal services over that span has been "unprecedented," shifting attitudes from managing homelessness among veterans to ending it.

So far, officials in New Orleans, Salt Lake City and Phoenix announced they have reached "functional zero" for homeless veterans in their cities. That means they have no chronic homeless veterans on the streets, and resources exist to get newly homeless veterans into shelters and assistance programs within days.

At the other end, officials in Los Angeles have seen sluggish progress in reducing their population of homeless veterans over the last two years.

In June, the secretaries of Veterans Affairs, Labor, and Housing and Urban Development will visit Texas, Arizona and Nevada together to discuss the ongoing campaign, rallying local groups to keep focus on the problem.

Focus after 2015

At the coalition conference last week, VA Secretary Bob McDonald told about 600 community organizers that "we can get to zero and we can stay at zero." He deflected questions about whether the December deadline is still a possibility, but promised continued focus on housing veterans past 2015.

The budget for veterans homelessness programs has ballooned from about $2.4 billion in fiscal 2008 to nearly $7 billion for fiscal 2016. Despite McDonald's promises, advocates worry that those resources could start to dwindle after this year, another victim of Capitol Hill fiscal concerns.

For next year alone, the coalition already has identified about $250 million in shortfalls to housing grants and assistance funds that have been critical in the progress of the last five years.

But one resource that supporters say they won't lose is the new level of coordination they've built among federal, state and community partners.

Heather Pritchard, senior manager of national partnerships at the Home Depot Foundation, said in the last few years many housing advocates have shifted from individual projects to the larger group goal of creating networks to help veterans,

That in turn has attracted funding sources like her organization that are looking for ambitious social impact over individual projects.

"Everybody was focused on getting veterans off the streets, but only in their own wheelhouses," she said. "Now, we see more and more work toward that common goal."

Labor Department Deputy Secretary Christopher Lu credited those advances to the the extra focus of a 2015 deadline, saying it also pushed federal agencies to better coordinate to move ahead.

He told conference attendees that he "hopes" to return next year to celebrate reaching the goal, but also deflected the importance of making the deadline. More critical, he said, is establishing partnerships and networks to keep addressing the problem past 2015.

Whether or not federal officials reach the zero homeless veterans goal by the end of the year, Riley is pushing to make sure he's outside the count for good.

He's working on getting his commercial driver's license, seeing the opportunity for a stable career and permanent housing within a few months. He's also confident that with the new resources he has found, he won't slide back into financial disarray again.

"I've got so many more opportunities with this," he said. "This time I feel like it's going to stay positive, instead of falling back in that hole."

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