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LISTEN: City nears goal of eliminating veteran homelessness

Steps taken to help vets could be applied to help other homeless populations

SAN ANTONIO -- The tall task of ending veteran homelessness is one the city of San Antonio ambitiously took on shortly after First Lady Michelle Obama and Second Lady Jill Biden announced the federal initiative in early 2014.

According to city leaders, that goal is just about to be met.

In the 14 months since Mayor Ivy Taylor officially accepted the challenge, San Antonio’s human services department has worked to form a coalition of support services and prioritized funding and staff with city council approval.

Another strategy is hiring five navigators who will work through the nonprofit group Family Endeavors to guide veterans through the process of finding and maintaining permanent housing. Family Endeavors CEO Travis Pearson said currently, three navigators have been hired.

“We’ve seen this in other communities like Phoenix and Houston, where they create a team of navigators who really walk the veterans through the housing process: help them identify housing, help them through the application process, which can be complicated, help them negotiate with landlords because sometimes there’s resistance to housing someone that might have a mental illness or criminal background history, so there’s a lot of work that has to be done there,” said the city’s Department of Human Services Director Melody Woosley.

How many homeless veterans live in San Antonio?

Woosley said the annual point-in-time count included 284 veterans, but that is a one-night snapshot. Based on numbers within the city’s homeless information system, at the beginning of the year, there were roughly 600 veterans. From that number, the city then estimated how many come into the system each month.

On Nov. 16, the takedown target was at 849. By November, more than a year after the initiative began, 634 veterans had been placed in housing. Woosley said 215 were not permanently housed and were in emergency shelters or transitional housing.

As of Dec. 2, the city reported that of the 849 veterans, 679 have been permanently housed, with 53 approved and in the process of obtaining housing. That left 170 remaining to be placed in a permanent housing situation.

But because the average number of veterans becoming homeless was higher than estimated, the city figured that before they could declare an end to the local epidemic, they would need to house over 1,000 veterans to achieve what leaders call functional zero. Based on the most recent survey, that would mean that more than 320 veterans would need to be housed to reach the goal.

“That means there are no veterans sleeping on the street -- they are permanently housed,” Woosley said. “Veterans that are at risk of becoming homeless, we have a system in place that prevents them from becoming homeless or very rapidly re-houses them. And what we’re looking for is that the veterans (who) want to be housed are permanently housed. There’s always going to be homeless who are offered services multiple times and may not accept them and so it’s not that we write them off or give up on that group, but we go forward and we continue to circle back and help them. But that’s what we consider functional zero -- (it’s) that we’ve helped those that want to be helped.”

The goal to end homelessness among veterans in San Antonio and across the country -- and the steps taken to achieve that goal -- could also be used to end chronic homelessness among other populations too, Woosley said.

The homeless veterans initiative began at the federal level. But according to leaders working to combat the epidemic, it has created the drive to bring cooperative efforts together.

“That wasn’t there before and so I think the impact of ending veteran homelessness will be felt in the rest of the homeless community,” Woosley said.