Mesa Arizona has joined a nationwide effort to end veteran homelessness.
In 2010, the White House and VA issued a plan to end Veteran homelessness by the end of 2015. Together with partners and supporters nationwide, VA launched the Ending Veteran Homelessness initiative, an unprecedented effort to make sure Veterans are able to obtain permanent housing and that Veterans at risk of homelessness remain housed.
Decrying the patterns that for years have allowed returning service members to slip through society's cracks, Mesa recently joined a national effort to eradicate veteran homelessness by the end of 2015.
Surrounded by city officials, social-service-agency representatives and a smattering of veterans, Mayor John Giles announced he had accepted the "Mayors Challenge to End Veteran Homelessness" and named councilmen Chris Glover and Kevin Thompson initiative co-chairs.
"Mesa has been the breeding ground for a lot of fantastic social-service agencies that have become state and national leaders in caring for the less fortunate," Giles said. "It's going to require some increased urgency...but I think we're very much up to the challenge."
More than 350 mayors, including Phoenix's Greg Stanton and Tucson's Jonathan Rothschild, have signed on to the Mayors Challenge since its debut last summer. The initiative is part of a broader strategic plan launched by the Obama administration and U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs in 2010, which has resulted in a 33 percent reduction in veteran homelessness so far, according to the VA.
The plan embraces a philosophy known as "Housing First," which warns against insisting homeless people resolve related problems such as addiction before giving them somewhere to stay. The approach contends those individuals will have a better shot at addressing such issues when they aren't constantly worried about finding a safe place to sleep.
In the case of homeless veterans, the strategy also recommends the use of assigned "navigators," who can help transitioning veterans with everything from food to paperwork.
In Mesa, officials will begin by identifying every homeless veteran on the city's streets, relying on help from public-safety officers, Giles said. They will then create and maintain an up-to-date list of cases, he said, meeting frequently with representatives from social-service agencies such as A New Leaf, Save the Family and Marc Community Resources to create personalized transition plans for each veteran.
"It's important that we not be working on this in silos," Giles said. "I think if we have enough passion where we just say, 'This is going to go to the top of our list of things to do,' we can do that in a matter of a few months."
Other city leaders expressed similar optimism, stressing that joining the campaign was only the latest in a series of Mesa efforts designed to assist struggling veterans.
Thompson, a veteran, mentioned the Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing vouchers Mesa receives from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. He said the tool "enhances our veterans' abilities to find affordable permanent housing to get them off the streets and safe."
"Our own magistrate has also set up a veterans court and has helped identify our vets who run into legal issues, to help them receive the appropriate assistance that they need to resolve their legal problems," Thompson said. "We have so many other supportive programs...employment training, the crisis prevention, the rehab facilities."
Not everyone believes the city's latest undertaking will be a snap, however.
"When people say they're going to do these things for veterans and it's going to be a short time frame, I'm very cautious," said David Lucier, president and CEO of the Arizona Veterans & Military Leadership Alliance.
"If they want to just build housing for homeless, that's one thing. But you're talking about a lot of services and resources that come from the federal, state and county governments, the municipalities, non-profits, for-profits," he said. "That's a huge, complex mix, and when somebody says they're going to do it in nine months, I'd probably have to take issue with that."
Lucier said Arizona's navigators already are spread thin, and there generally aren't many people in the state with comprehensive expertise in veteran homelessness.
"You're talking about jobs and economic opportunity. You're talking about wellness, which includes drug abuse, alcohol abuse, bad behaviors, post-traumatic stress disorder, suicide risk. You have all these things to consider," he said. "The people who understand the solutions start to finish and can actually execute these types of plans, they're few and far between."
Still, people on all sides of the issue agreed that Mesa vowing to try is a win.
"Those who fought for our freedoms abroad should never be left without a home here," said Glover, the Mesa councilman. "They have fought for our homes and our freedoms, and now it's time for us to fight for theirs."
Steady progress has been made, but there is more work to do to address the many causes of homelessness among Veterans. These include poverty, insufficient access to reasonably priced housing, isolation from family or friends and substance use or mental health challenges that may develop or worsen as a result of service-related trauma.
VA is engaging in partnerships to expand access to meaningful employment, affordable housing and move-in essentials, which help newly housed Veterans make their house a home. We are also working specifically with city governments and mayors on targeted efforts to end Veteran homelessness through these key initiatives:
VA also strives to meet the needs of Veterans by providing various services that help Veterans secure housing and achieve self-sufficiency. These services include:
All of this work is guided by the Housing First approach, which is based on the premise that when Veterans have a place to call home, they’re best able to benefit from the services they need.
Ending Veteran Homelessness
The Mayors Challenge to End Veteran Homelessness is part of a broader plan launched in 2010. To help local leaders end homelessness among veterans, the federal government has recommended:
— Using a "Housing First" approach, which removes barriers so veterans can get permanent housing as quickly as possible.
— Prioritizing the most vulnerable veterans, especially those experiencing chronic homelessness, for permanent supportive-housing opportunities.
— Coordinating outreach efforts to identify and engage every veteran experiencing homelessness.
— Targeting rapid-rehousing interventions toward veterans and their families who need shorter-term rental subsidies and services in order to be reintegrated back into communities.
— Leveraging resources that can help veterans who are ineligible for some Veterans Affairs programs get into stable housing;
— Increasing early detection and access to preventive services so at-risk veterans and their families remain stably housed.