The U.S. government declared this year that 20 counties in western Pennsylvania have effectively ended veteran homelessness.
The area, which stretches from Greene County to Potter County but does not include Allegheny County, became one of about 80 regions or states to earn the distinction in September. (Allegheny County was recognized for ending veteran homeless in 2017.)
The surrounding counties qualified because community organizations are quick to find permanent housing for homeless veterans, said Missy Russell, Regional Veterans Housing Coordinator for Lawrence County Community Action Partnership.
“We work right away to get them where they need to be,” Russell said.
While she noted that vets can still experience homelessness at times, Russell said, “We have a system in place [so] that … we can identify and house them quickly. That homeless episode is going to be rare. It’s going to be brief. And it’s going to be a one-time occurrence.”
The federal government certifies regions as having ended veteran homelessness based on several criteria, including whether those communities have the capacity to connect vets to permanent housing in an average of 90 days or less.
Russell said that starting around 2013, her organization worked with other service providers on a community plan for identifying and housing homeless vets. She said the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, and Pennsylvania’s Department of Community and Economic Development provided funding and expertise.
“Your success is rooted in your collaborative approach to tackle a big challenge,” HUD Mid-Atlantic Regional Administrator Joe DeFelice told organizations involved in the effort at a Dec. 12 news conference in New Castle.
“They say there’s strength in numbers,” DeFelice said. “You’ve shown that to be true by coordinating successfully across your counties.”
Russell said such coordination capitalizes on local service providers’ familiarity with their communities.
“We actually have boots on the ground, literally walking the streets and looking for people,” she said of those groups’ approach to finding homeless veterans.
Each week, community organizations and local VA staff hold weekly conference calls to devise responses to individual cases.
“It’s really just a meeting of the minds and working together,” Russell said. “And the person in that community can hopefully take the lead.”
She noted that community groups are well-positioned to link vets to permanent housing, because they know which landlords are willing to provide such shelter.
VA staff, meanwhile, connect vets with housing vouchers and other services they might need to address challenges related to mental health, drug and alcohol use, and other issues.
Russell described the goal of the system as “working smarter, not harder, and bringing everyone together and having us look at the same information and that open communication.”
And Russell said thousands of western Pennsylvania veterans have benefitted. Her organization alone helps at least 200 vets a year find housing.
Nationally, homelessness among veterans has declined steadily since 2010, according to HUD. Department data show that close to 38,000 discharged service members were homeless in 2018, down from about 74,000 in 2010.