When people envision veteran homelessness, they typically think in statistics, like one in four homeless on any given night are likely to be veterans. But when Brad Bridwell of Cloudbreak Communities in Phoenix, a city that has achieved the remarkable status of "functional zero" in veteran homelessness, talks about veteran homelessness, he thinks about them in terms of names, faces and locations.
His team of collaborators, and homeless veteran navigators, worked with the veterans they'd identified until they reduced the number of chronically homeless veterans to almost none. It wasn't quick or easy, but this innovative approach, one that first startles, then convinces and impresses, might just hold the key to the future of other big cities like San Antonio ending veteran homelessness themselves.
Bridwell was one of four speakers at a panel discussion hosted by Councilmember Ron Nirenberg (D8), Mayor Ivy Taylor, and City staff on ending veteran homelessness in San Antonio, held at the International Center on Tuesday.
Panelists ranged from local experts and regional government agency staff to national pathbreakers on this topic, which has drawn increasing attention nationally as we approach the end of a five-year national goal for eradicating veteran homelessness. The former head of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, Gen. Eric Shinseki, set that as a goal by the end of 2015.
As a nation, we’re not there yet, though the numbers of homeless veterans are dropping, particularly if you look at male veterans. Numbers of homeless female veterans, however, are on the rise.
Government officials including Veteran Affairs Secretary McDonald and Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro, San Antonio's former mayor, were in Houston yesterday to celebrate Mayor Annise Parker’s announcement that Houston has effectively ended veteran homelessness in city limits. With that, Houston becomes one of four cities nationwide —including Phoenix, Salt Lake City, and New Orleans — to have made similar claims.
The pressure will be on for San Antonio to continue its efforts to do the same because the veteran population in Texas is about to undergo a surprising shift, with implications for Bexar County. By 2020, Bexar is expected to outpace Harris County for the highest population of veterans in the state. Additionally, those numbers are expected to stay high while the veteran population of the rest of the state declines, according to figures provided by the VA’s actuarial department. There are now 156,545 veterans in Bexar County.
As interim Mayor Ivy Taylor pointed out in her opening remarks on Tuesday, most veterans do not struggle with homelessness, but it's an issue for a significant segment. Estimates of homeless veterans vary and are determined as much as they can be, primarily by what’s known as the annual “point-in-time” count that happens in every major city during a single night in late January. The date varies by city and year.
In San Antonio, there were a total of 284 homeless veterans were counted in January’s census. Of those, 190 were considered sheltered, and 94 unsheltered, according to panelist Travis Pearson, director of the South Alamo Regional Alliance for the Homeless.
For a more in-depth description of why counting the homeless is an inexact science, read cartoonist Susie Cagle’s recap of her own volunteering efforts this past January in San Francisco. The dilemmas she raises are even more of an issue when it comes to counting homeless veterans – who may not be veterans, may not self-identify as veterans, and may be difficult or impossible to locate.
There are also multiple reasons why veterans can become homeless, ranging from financial difficulties to lack of employment, alcohol or substance abuse, physical and emotional disabilities. Each issue might present its own pathway to resolution, adding to the complexity of any individual homeless veteran's case management; and some veterans are simply chronically homeless. However, in recent years, the concept of "housing first" – prioritize a veteran's housing and other improvements will follow – has gained traction.
Previously this year, San Antonio city leaders including Taylor and Nirenberg had journeyed to Phoenix to see the work of Cloudbreak Communities, which catalyzed Phoenix’s efforts to end homelessness among veterans and provides permanent supportive housing for veterans.
When Bridwell's turn to speak came at today's panel, he got up from his seat at the table, where the other presenters had spoke, grabbed a microphone and stepped out in front of the audience for his remarks, changing the atmosphere in the room. Several dozen civic and nonprofit leaders listened with rapt attention as Bridwell painted a striking picture of what it took for Phoenix to make such remarkable strides in eliminating veteran homelessness – including a focus on collaboration among city stakeholders and an emphasis on collective impact.
Addressing veteran homelessness "takes a lot of strategy and building political support – but it looks like you have that going on here," Bridwell said.
Bridwell and Cloudbreak got started on the problem in Phoenix in 2008, ahead of the VA’s announcement of its five-year plan, he said. Its outreach to veterans was much more invested than a single night's point-in-time count. They spent the entire Veterans’ Day week in 2011 counting homeless, every day at 4 a.m. They got to know the homeless by name, by face, and by location, Bridwell said. Then, they systematically followed up, using a system of human “navigators” to help keep track of how those specific homeless veterans were doing. They prioritized care according to a “vulnerability index,” and moved those veterans to the head of the line for housing.
This intensive focus on highlighting the veteran homeless as individuals resulted in effectively solving the problem, or getting Phoenix’s numbers down to what Bridwell described as “functional zero” — a statistically insignificant number of only those in immediate transition.
It’s a promising development that San Antonio’s City leaders have sought out path-breaking work from cities like Phoenix on this topic. A webinar on providing supportive housing for homeless veterans put on by the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness ("USICH") earlier this week focused on the progress Miami has made, particularly after they hired a homeless veteran services coordinator to better estimate fluctuations in housing supply and demand for services, and to more effectively coordinate service delivery. Bridwell, too, talked about the early days of Phoenix’s attempt, when homeless veterans had multiple case managers, each attempting to resolve an aspect of the same individual’s situation. San Antonio apparently has hired a specific veterans homelessness coordinator, Mark Wonder, who was introduced during audience questioning at the meeting.
“Veteran homelessness is a complex issue,” said Councilmember Nirenberg. “The more voices we hear, the better.” These public- and private-sector stakeholders “will be valuable partners in our effort moving forward,” he added in a written statement.
On the federal level, President Barack Obama announced the Mayors' Challenge to End Veteran Homelessness to foster cooperation on this pressing issue between cities, federal agencies and the nonprofit sector. San Antonio has joined 225 cities nationwide who have committed to end veteran homelessness by 2015. The National Alliance to End Homelessness, a long-established and well-regarded nonprofit in the fight, lists its top five "high-impact" steps mayors can take to accomplish this goal.
As for what today's event was intended to accomplish, Nirenberg said "the City's chief power in the effort to end veteran homelessness is to set the agenda, provide regulatory framework and resource allocation, and to convene the partners who will make it happen. ... That's what I hoped to accomplish today, and I think we did."
"The next step now is to facilitate the recommended actions among the public and private sectors for employing more veterans, identifying more affordable housing options that cater to veterans, and connecting veterans with needed social and health services that are being provided throughout our community.
"We can do this, " he added.
*Featured/top image: In an interview in September 2014, Earl said he is a military veteran has been panhandling for more than 15 years. Photo by Scott Ball.