By Gary Goldberg

As we take time to honor our veterans this Veterans Day, an existing problem exists that is impacting  our veteran population. That problem is homelessness. Several hundred thousand veterans are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless. A combination of substance abuse, mental illness,  unemployment, and other issues has lead to this growing problem.  As big as the problem is, there are hard working and dedicated people working to implement solutions. These solutions are reducing the homeless veteran population.

Some of the programs that offer support to homeless veterans in Oklahoma include The Homeless Providers Grant and Per Diem Program; HUD-VA Supported Housing (VASH) program, the SSVF (Supportive Services for Veteran Families) and Stand Downs.

The Grant and Per Diem Program provide payments to help public and non-profit organizations  establish and operate supportive housing programs. One such program is operated by the Mental Health Association Oklahoma where up to fifteen veterans are provided housing in the Yale Apartments complex. This program pays the veterans rent for up to six months at which time a veteran will work to establish other housing option including HUD-VASH, Section 8 Vouchers, employment or supplemental income.

The HUD-VASH program offers Section 8 vouchers to veterans along with on-going mental health treatment. A veteran must be homeless and have a documented disability . Over forty landlords throughout the 25-county area covered by the Jack C. Montgomery V.A. Medical Center in Muskogee  accept VASH vouchers.  These vouchers are funded out of the Department of Housing and Urban Development and are offered through both the Oklahoma Housing Finance Agency and the Tulsa Housing Authority. The Mental Health Association Oklahoma is the biggest single supplier of HUD-VASH voucher apartments.

The SSVF Program (Supportive Services for Veteran Families) provides grants that go to private non-profit organizations and consumer cooperatives that use the money to provide supportive services to low-income veteran families living in or looking for permanent housing. These payments may include rental assistance, help in paying utilities, security deposits or moving costs.

Stand Downs are one to three day events that bring veterans together to provide them a variety of services from the VA and other community based organizations. These Stand Downs give all veterans, homeless or not, a temporary refuse where they can obtain food, shelter, clothing and a range of services including health screening, referrals and access to long term treatment, benefits counseling, ID cards and access to other programs that may meet their needs.

It is difficult to underestimate all that the VA is doing to reduce the veteran homeless population. Melanie Goldman, Homeless Program Manager for the Jack C. Montgomery VA Medical Center in Muskogee, has seen the emphasis that is now being placed on homeless veterans. When she first started working with homeless veterans in 2000, she was the only staff person in this region, working on this issue.  In 2008 there were 4 and today there are 18. The SSVP Program has also seen an increase from $100 million in 2011 to $300 million today. This increase has mainly come about from the 2009 White House and VA initiative on ending veteran homelessness in five years.

Ms. Goldman stated that much of the emphasis on homeless veterans are post Viet Nam with a greater outreach to those veterans with co-occurring disorders and mental health needs. She also added that there are now three outreach coordinators working the shelters, soup kitchens, and encampments, looking for homeless veterans to assist and provide services to.

“If not for the Tulsa community and surrounding communities, none of this success would have been possible. The VA is fortunate to have such great partners to collaborate with” stated Goldman.

Michelle Bachelor, HUD-VASH Supervisor at the Jack C. Montgomery VA Medical Center stated that she has seen an increase in the number of VASH vouchers available from 38 in 2008 to 206 this year. “This commitment to providing long term housing stability is vital to keeping veterans off the streets and in permanent housing,” said Ms. Bachelor.

Connally Perry, Administrator of the Mental Health Association Oklahoma’s Supported Permanent and Transitional Housing Programs knows first hand the challenge facing veteran homelessness. Connally served during the Viet Nam war, developed substance abuse issues and found himself homeless for a while. Connally’s outreach to veterans, especially during the Stand Down, provides veterans with someone they can relate to, someone who has been where they are now, homeless, scared, and troubled. Connally also administers the Yale Avenue Apartments where the 15 per diem units are available.

The combination of the work being done by the VA and HUD, along with the efforts of the Mental Health Association Oklahoma and other community partners shows the positive results of the efforts. Each year a Point-In-Time count is done to document the homeless. This Point-in-Time count is done in January. In 2013, there were 173 homeless veterans in the Tulsa area. In 2013, that count decreased to 149 and it was 114 in 2014. The cooperating efforts of all these entities realize that we must do more to support the men and women who have given so much to serve our country. Anything less, on this Veterans Day or any day, is not acceptable.