Denver, CO

Denver may achieve goal to end veteran homelessness this time

David Heitz

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There’s nothing new about Denver’s plan to end veteran homelessness. It’s a goal the city has worked toward since at least 2010.

Back then, Denver and the nation had a goal to end veteran homelessness by 2015. That didn’t happen, but significant reductions were made.

Denver has seen success in reducing homelessness among veterans even during the COVID-19 epidemic. From 2020 to 2021, the number of people overall experiencing homelessness for the first time in Denver doubled. But more than 200 fewer veterans experienced homelessness in 2021, with a count of 418 according to the Point in Time survey. More than 600 veterans experienced homelessness in 2020.

In a joint statement in April, U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Secretary Marcia L. Fudge and Veterans Administration Secretary Denis McDonough announced their own initiative to end veteran homelessness.

“We have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to tackle this crisis,” the statement reads. “The American Rescue Plan included more than $10 billion in funding for individuals who are experiencing or at risk of experiencing homelessness. The American Jobs Plan would invest $213 billion to produce, preserve, and retrofit more than two million affordable homes.

“Our collaboration is the first step of a multi-phased whole-of-government effort that will ultimately help us end veteran homelessness. We will evaluate existing strategies, implement new approaches when necessary, and execute a plan to ensure we achieve tangible results that incorporate best practices, feedback, and lessons learned from veterans, advocacy groups, and other stakeholders.”

Denver offers few specifics how to reach goal

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Denver’s five-year housing plan mentions Denver’s goal to end veteran homelessness, but the document provides few specifics on how to get there. An e-mail to the Department of Housing Stability asking for more details was not returned.

Built for Zero is a collaboration of 90 communities nationwide committed to ending homelessness. On its website, Built for Zero offers a case study of Denver’s effort.

“In 2020, metro Denver partners were able to achieve a 22 percent reduction in veteran homelessness,” according to the case study, released in August. “That marked the largest reduction metro Denver has seen since joining Built for Zero in 2015 and totaled 514 veterans housed in the calendar year. Much of this reduction was driven as part of the response to the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Metro Denver Homeless Initiative is coordinating the effort to get to zero homeless veterans. “Due to the complexity and diversity of the communities across a geographically expansive continuum of care, the community struggled to achieve data quality, understand what was happening across the vast geography, and subsequently coordinate efforts to drive reductions in veteran homelessness at the local level," according to the case study. "The team found that key elements of a homeless response system — for example, outreach, Homeless Management Information System coverage, access to resources — significantly vary from county to county."

The man in charge of ending veteran homelessness

The Denver effort to end veteran homelessness has a leader in Ian Fletcher. Fletcher is system transformation adviser for the Metro Denver Homeless Initiative.

“I’ve worked in this community for eight years, and this is the most buy-in I have seen from a broad base of supporters,” Fletcher explained in the case study. “This has included electeds, new providers, and local leaders outside of our traditional partners towards ending veteran homelessness.”

There are nine sub-regions throughout the Front Range working to end veteran homelessness. More than half of them have created a leadership infrastructure intended to reach the following goals:

· Building and managing local leadership and quality improvement science capability.

· Managing the process to reach quality data.

· Measuring system improvement efforts, including work to assure each locally led homeless response system meets a racial equity measurement framework.

· Managing transformational change projects and partner investments.

· Engaging local elected officials and policy makers to “clear the path” to ensure funding and policy shifts are in place needed to reach functional zero.

Things to remember about veteran homelessness

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The National Alliance to End Homelessness offers five key things to remember when it comes to housing veterans. Those include:

· Housing First, or housing people without requiring them to be sober, combined with government investment gets homeless people off the street fastest. Denver employs a Housing First approach and also has seen great success with it.

· COVID-19 may hamper goals to end veteran homelessness. “Unfortunately, sheltered veterans disproportionately fall into two categories facing barriers in the pandemic-impacted job market: older adults and people with disabilities,” according to the alliance. “Within the former category, researchers are flagging that people 55 and over have been losing jobs faster and returning to work slower than middle-aged workers.

“And advocates worry that people with disabilities are more likely to be in retail jobs being lost in the recession. These challenges may drive more veterans into homelessness while making it harder for them to get out.”

· If you’re a veteran you’re more likely to be homeless. That’s changing, however. “In 2019, 21 out of every 10,000 veterans were homeless,” according to the alliance’s website. “This number is only slightly higher than the overall homeless rate of 17 out of every 10,000 Americans.”

· Veterans of color are most likely to become homeless. “Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander veterans are most at-risk—106 out every 10,000 are homeless, despite their service to our country,” according to the alliance. “American Indians and black people have similarly elevated numbers.”

· Ending veteran homelessness is possible. “In the years leading up to the pandemic, veteran homelessness was cut roughly in half, and the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness has recognized 79 communities and 3 states as ending it (ensuring that it is rare, brief, and one-time),” according to the alliance.

Why Denver might succeed this time

Denver has a lot going for it this time around as the city tries to house all its veterans. For starters, it has a larger staff dedicated to issues surrounding homelessness than it did 10 years ago. For example, the new STAR team, which responds to non-violent calls of people in duress with mental health professionals instead of cops, has contacts at the V.A. This means services get provided quicker than in the past.

A record amount of federal funding is available for homeless relief. Combined with local dollars, resources to end veteran homelessness are vast in Denver. What will make or break the effort to house all veterans will be the number of newly homeless in the next five years. Studies show that homeless veterans are becoming older, not younger. This may indicate that younger veterans can more easily access safety nets and won't become homeless.

Despite all the documents, data and dashboards that go with ending veteran homelessness, communities that saw success got to know their veteran populations by name. Trained case workers are critical to funneling unhoused veterans into the system, past experiences have shown.

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I have been in the news business more than 30 years, spending much of my career at some of the best local newspapers in the country. Today, I report on Denver City Hall, homelessness and other topics for NewsBreak, much like I did in my twenties covering Newport Beach, Calif. for the Daily Pilot. I consider myself a lucky guy to still be doing what I love after so many years.

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