Communities Go All In to End Homelessness for Veterans

In the six years since the Obama Administration and the Veterans Administration set a goal of eradicating veterans’ homelessness, cities and states — Houston; Las Vegas; Mobile, Ala.; New Orleans; Syracuse, N.Y.; and the state of Virginia — have announced they achieved that goal.

It’s a challenging problem that affects not just men, but a growing number of women, reports Stephanie J. Wong, a clinical psychologist who works at a VA hospital in the San Francisco Bay Area. “The majority are Vietnam-era vets. But I’m also seeing more and more younger vets, in their mid-30s, and a lot more Operation Iraqi Freedom vets seeking help.”

Many have suffered multiple injuries, which makes treatment more challenging. “I’m seeing more and more ‘comorbid’ injuries, so a veteran may have a traumatic brain injury, post-traumatic stress disorder, and substance abuse,” notes Wong. “What do you treat first?”

Communities are building facilities to shelter veterans in need. In Columbia, Mo., Veterans United Mortgage (VU) and its charitable foundation contributed $1 million — nearly one-quarter of the entire funding necessary — to transform a decrepit hotel into a “welcome home community” for veterans without housing. The facility has both apartment units and an emergency shelter.

“It’s a campus designed for homeless veterans to have all the necessary and comprehensive services they need to get back on their feet and gain reemployment,” explains Greg Steinhoff, VU foundation director. “What’s important is the housing-first concept. You don’t have to give up anything or change your behavior. We just want you here. We’ll find you a place to call home first, and we’ll help you from there.”

Cities are also uniting groups that typically haven’t worked together with ease. The Austin Board of REALTORS® (ABR) jumped in when the Texas city’s mayor  asked local stakeholders to pool resources. “The mayor’s leadership created the opportunity for a number of organizations that wouldn’t normally coordinate their services,” says CEO Paul Hilgers. “It was important for us to be engaged proactively to address a critical housing issue in this city.”

The ABR has a strong leasing and property management membership. “We tried to connect our property managers with advocates helping the homeless population,” says Hilgers, “and some people made their rental properties available.”

The collaboration wasn’t always easy. Property managers have a fiduciary duty to their clients, and advocates for homeless people sometimes bristled at the strict requirements landlords had before accepting tenants. The ABR created a video it sent to its partners to explain its members’ professional duties.

At the same time, Ann Howard, executive director of Ending Community Homelessness Coalition in Austin, says part of her role was giving ABR members a 101 course on the housing and other needs of veterans and chronically homeless individuals.

“They needed to learn from us, for example, that when you require that a potential tenant demonstrate income that’s three times the amount of rent, you’re screening out potential tenants who might be gainfully employed and might be able to afford the rent,” she says. “Another example is an eviction history. But they partnered with us and changed their screening criteria for the veterans’ program. They really recognized the needs of the veterans.”

ABR’s charitable foundation also donated $5,000 to a local Housing for Heroes fund. “It’s to be used in a flexible way,” notes Hilgers. “Let’s say a toilet doesn’t work. Somebody accidently dropped a T-shirt down there. Who fixes that? Those are normal landlord-tenant problems. This fund lets everybody say, ‘Don’t fight over it; let’s just fix it.’”

The partnership took time and required give and take. “The beautiful thing is we took the time and did the give and take,” says Howard. “I hope it’s a long-term partnership.” 

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A free, semi-annual magazine published by NAR, On Common Ground presents a wide range of views on smart growth issues, with the goal of encouraging dialog among REALTORS®, elected officials, and other interested citizens.

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