A day before the Veterans Day Concert of Valor held on the National Mall honored those who served, the District of Columbia, behind Mayor Vincent Gray, broke ground on D.C.’s first permanent supportive housing to address veteran homelessness in D.C.
Located at 1005 North Capitol St. NE, the John and Jill Ker Conway Residence is set to be completed by December 2015.
Gray released the Service Members, Veterans and Their Families Action Plan last week to advance progress toward the goal. There are currently 499 homeless veterans on the streets of D.C., according to the Veterans Affairs Medical Center.
This new initiative incorporates the development of a new mixed income housing apartment building, which will include supportive housing for homeless veterans. The action plan will promote a new system that prioritizes the most vulnerable veterans, using a housing placement system in coordination with veterans’ outreach initiatives to place these veterans in housing services.
VA Medical Center Homeless Coordinator Kevin Morton explained that the organizations involved developed a vulnerability index to assess the relative need of individual veterans.
“We develop tools to assess everyone in the community and we have one resource list that all the partners in the community pull from to help house veterans … We are able to identify veterans who are most vulnerable and have been homeless the longest and we use that tool to house the correct people,” Morton said. “We use vouchers that we get from the [Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing] program to house veterans that are currently homeless, who are most vulnerable.”
The District has recently seen a drop in veteran homelessness. According to data collected by the D.C. Department of Housing and Urban Development in January 2014, veteran homelessness rates have seen a 33-point drop, or a decrease by 24,837 people, since 2010.
Pathways to Housing CEO Christy Respress credits the District’s success to the inclusion of more community partners via the Veterans NOW campaign, targeting veterans who previously did not feel comfortable interacting with the VA to access more services.
“The VA have done things they haven’t before such as including community partners because they don’t have the ability to house every veteran on their own, so including community partners to complement the resources they have,” Respress said. “We all have this shared commitment and vision to ending homelessness for veterans. … It’s forced us to get creative in a way that’s been really powerful and has had dramatic success.”
Hoya/Homeless Outreach Programs & Education President Chantelle Johnson (MSB ’16) was impressed with the recent introduction of 200 new beds for homeless veterans in D.C. and its future prospects.
“If we only have 500 homeless veterans in D.C, I definitely think it shouldn’t be that hard for us to provide housing for 300 more,” Johnson said.
Morton noted that this problem still prevails in the District, however, with the high housing costs in the area.
“Housing is so expensive in D.C.,” Morton said. “A lot of veterans also have mental health issues and substance abuse issues.”
Johnson noted that homelessness is particularly devastating to veterans.
“I’ve come to realize that being homeless is degrading to veterans not only because of them not having a place to come home but the fact of them knowing they put their lives on the line to protect our country and not having a place to go after the fact,” Johnson said.
Despite the improvements in veterans administration, Johnson urged the VA to develop better communications with veterans.
“I just feel like [the VA] should do a better job at first reaching out, because some people don’t go to the VA and don’t know what’s available, and then, second, making sure resources are actually available,” she said.
On top of governmental oversight, Respress also emphasized the importance of individuals showing their support to the D.C. council for ending veteran homelessness, both in D.C. and in their own hometowns.
“What’s really important for us is that if people are interested in getting involved, they should let their policymakers know this is an issue that means something to them because with that kind of advocacy we really will reach our goal of ending veteran homelessness,” she said.
Johnson also emphasized the necessity of community support in ending veteran homelessness.
“If you go to the VA … a big thing they say is that they need community help and support, so I think programs, such as HOPE and other things the CSJ has going on, are very crucial,” she said. “The VA can’t accommodate everyone due to funding issues … [so] it has to be community effort to get veterans off the street.”