The vow by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs in 2010 that it would end veteran homelessness in five years struck many at the time as one more hollow promise to those who had served when their country needed them.
But last year two North Carolina cities – Fayetteville and Winston-Salem – succeeded in ending homelessness for military veterans who want off the streets. Raleigh and Durham expect to celebrate that milestone in the coming months. Veterans Affairs refers to it as reaching “functional zero,” meaning that every known veteran who is willing to move into permanent housing has done so, and any veteran who becomes newly homeless can be quickly housed, usually within a month and sometimes in less than a week.
Nationally, the VA’s ambitious goal was not met, but in the annual nationwide count of the homeless last January, the number of veterans without permanent housing had dropped by 35 percent compared with 2010. Those who work in the field say this year’s count, on Jan. 27, should show a precipitous decline.
The five-year effort to eliminate the old and complex problem of veteran homelessness has tested the nation’s political and fiscal resolve and forced a major policy shift that advocates say could be used as a model for eliminating and preventing all homelessness in the United States.
“It’s called ‘housing first,’ ” said Laressa Witt, local program manager at Family Endeavors. That’s a Texas-based nonprofit with three offices in North Carolina dedicated to getting homeless veterans out of emergency shelters, abandoned buildings and old cars, and into permanent housing. During the fiscal year that ended in October, Witt said, Family Endeavors placed 280 homeless veterans into housing in Fayetteville and Cumberland County alone. It helped keep another 170 veterans there who were at risk of homelessness from landing on the street, where they are more likely to develop chronic illnesses and become victims of crime.
On a single night in January 2015, there were 47,725 veterans living on the streets or in shelters across the United States.
According to the VA, veterans are twice as likely as other Americans to become chronically homeless. Veterans groups say that in 2014, more than half a million veterans were homeless at some point during the year; on a single night in January 2015, there were 47,725 veterans living on the streets or in shelters across the United States, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. HUD figures show that more than one of every 10 homeless adults is a veteran.
Most are middle-aged males, but some are much older and some are in their 20s, fresh out of service. A growing number are women, some of whom have children with them.
In the past, most programs aimed at reducing homelessness took a “treatment first” approach. They required participants to deal with drug and alcohol addictions, mental illness and other problems before government agencies or charities would invest in utility and apartment deposits and monthly rents. The idea was to give people incentive to “fix” whatever had contributed to their becoming homeless in the first place, so that they could get a job or qualify for other assistance and be able to take care of themselves once placed in a decent home.
“But people need stable housing to have the energy to get a job,” Witt said.
“You need someplace to brush your teeth and clean your clothes and bathe, so you can look presentable when you’re out interviewing for a job,” said Fayetteville Mayor Nat Robertson, who, along with the mayor of Winston-Salem and others around the nation, signed onto first lady Michelle Obama’s 2014 Mayors Challenge to End Veteran Homelessness.
A home destroyed
Brothers Richard and David Pittman of Fayetteville say they learned after they became homeless that once you’re on the street, just surviving is a full-time job.
Richard, 54, and David, 50, grew up in Fayetteville, sons of a career Army sergeant. Richard, tall with a military-style haircut and intense blue eyes, spent six years in the Army. David, bald-headed and more easygoing, served a little less than a year in the U.S. Coast Guard. Afterward, each found work outside the area, Richard in manufacturing and inventory supply and David as a journeyman electrician.
Richard moved back to Fayetteville about 15 years ago to care for his parents, who were aging and sliding into ill health, and for an older brother, who was mentally ill. While he was taking care of them, a sister also fell ill with cancer. Eventually, David also returned to Fayetteville to help.
Their sister died first. A few years later, in 2013, they lost their mother, their father and finally their brother.
By then, neither Pittman brother had a full-time job. To pay for the double funeral for their dad and brother, they said, they sold the car and some of the furnishings from the house. Soon they learned that their father had not had clear title to the house, so it would not pass directly to them.
After the funerals, they decided to take a break, go hike the Appalachian Trail for a month, come back and decide what to do next.
“When we came back, the house had been torn apart, just ripped all to pieces, top to bottom,” Richard said. Wiring, duct work, fixtures, all stolen. Everything else had been destroyed.
The brothers camped out amid the ruins for a few months, but they couldn’t afford to make repairs and, when it got cold and they built a fire in the backyard to stay warm, a neighbor called police. The home was condemned. They were ordered out, they said, during an ice storm in early 2014.
“They were sending us out into the cold because they said it wasn’t safe for us to live there,” Richard said, noting the irony.
They moved into some woods within walking distance of the old neighborhood – the same woods where they had played as boys. Resourceful and handy with tools, they cuts small trees and built a structure large enough for two cots. Diving into dumpsters and picking through roadside trash, they harvested an old metal drum, a broken table, discarded bikes. From these they fashioned a cooking station, a laundry area and a single working set of wheels.
When they could get their hands on a newspaper, they scoured the want ads. They would go to the library and sign up for hour allotments on public computers and job-hunt there as well. Richard, who had devoted more than a decade of his life to caring for his family, found it hard to get work after such a long absence from the workforce. David had only a little better luck. With no permanent address and no car, he struggled to get full-time work but was able to land odd jobs for which he would accept as little as $5 pay.
“I would tell people I would do a job for almost nothing, to make sure I’d get the work,” he said. “The kind of job I used to get paid $300 or $400 to do, I’d take $30 or $40 for it.”
One day last summer, the Pittmans returned to their primitive cabin to find it, too, had been discovered and destroyed. They moved a few yards away and assembled a tent.
You have to plan your day around finding a way to get to the place that serves breakfast, and you get in line and wait for that. Then you have to walk to the place that serves lunch, and wait there. By the time you get home, it’s time to go to bed so you can start it all over the next day. There’s no time left to better yourself.
Army veteran Richard Pittman
The Pittmans stayed together, both for company and safety, and generally stayed away from other homeless groups, they said. As much as possible, they avoided mass feedings and grocery handouts.
“Partly out of embarrassment,” Richard said. “But also because it becomes kind of a trap. You have to plan your day around finding a way to get to the place that serves breakfast, and you get in line and wait for that. Then you have to walk to the place that serves lunch and wait there. By the time you get home, it’s time to go to bed so you can start it all over the next day. There’s no time left to better yourself.”
In November, David saw a notice in the paper about a stand-down, an event where government and charity agencies offer services such as haircuts and health screenings to the homeless and enroll them in assistance programs. His brother, ever reluctant to accept help, didn’t want to go, but David talked him into it.
There they met Witt and one of her outreach workers, Sharon Covington.
Covington joined Family Endeavors’ Fayetteville office after the company set up in North Carolina to compete for funds in the VA’s Supportive Services for Veteran Families program. The program, launched in 2011, has become the cornerstone of the VA’s effort to eliminate and prevent veteran homelessness.
Seeking out those who need help
Family Endeavors, which also has offices in Charlotte and Jacksonville, uses Supportive Services money to help veterans in 43 North Carolina counties. In the current fiscal year, eight nonprofit groups have more than $7.4 million to use across the state. Nationwide, the VA made 286 Supportive Services grants this year worth $298 million and will spend hundreds of millions more through its other programs that attack the problem.
The VA remains a beleaguered agency; it still has not fully resolved its most recent scandal, a widespread attempt by branches around the country to hide their inability to get patients seen by doctors in a timely way. But its effort to house homeless veterans is a popular cause and there has been little complaint about the spending.
Just as policymakers have often used the rule-bound structure of the military to implement social change, some say HUD may be able to use the Supportive Services for Veteran Families as a pilot program for reducing all homelessness in the U.S.
“It’s a very good model,” said Witt, of Family Endeavors. “But it takes both case management and temporary financial assistance. They have to be married. Either one without the other doesn’t work.”
About 60 percent of Supportive Services money is used get homeless veterans and their families into permanent, affordable housing, and 40 percent to help veterans who are about to lose their housing.
The work often begins with meetings between the agency that holds the grant and other local groups that work with the homeless. The agency compiles a list of known homeless veterans by name and caseworkers begin tracking them down.
Covington spends much of her time on the job looking for the people others try not to see. With a partner, she visits the bridges where the homeless bed down. She goes to the public library, the bus station, the homeless camps near downtown Fayetteville that are barely obscured by scrawny pine trees or tucked behind long-vacant buildings. She visits the soup kitchens, the food pantries.
“Everywhere I go, I ask the same question: Are you a veteran? Are you a veteran? Did you serve in the military?”
Many of those who have worn the uniform don’t identify as veterans if they didn’t serve in combat or never deployed. So they’re unaware of the range of programs the VA has to offer eligible homeless veterans.
Checking their military service records and seeing that the Pittman brothers had not been dishonorably discharged, Family Endeavors verified that Richard and David met the other program eligibility requirements: They were homeless or about to become homeless, and their income did not exceed 50 percent of the median for the area.
“It seemed too good to be true,” said Richard, who had a hard time believing the government could help him and his brother move out of the woods.
Finding a home is just the start
Rehousing is easier with some veterans and in some locations than others, say those who administer the program.
Fayetteville currently has a higher-than-average rental vacancy rate and a relatively high number of landlords willing to take a risk on a veteran with less-than-stellar credit history or a trail of eviction notices. In Raleigh and Durham, by contrast, affordable housing is scarce, especially for the one- and two-bedroom units needed for the single veterans and couples who make up most of Supportive Services’ clientele. In rural areas, says Tiana Terry, program director for Volunteers of America Carolinas, a Supportive Services provider with offices in Raleigh, Durham and Rocky Mount, the hardest part is just finding the homeless vets, who are better able to stay out of sight than their urban counterparts.
According to the VA, substance abuse and mental illness remain common problems among homeless veterans, and they tend to have weak social networks to provide help when they get into trouble. So those housed through Supportive Services and some of the VA’s other programs are assigned case managers who make sure they connect with treatment and counseling, along with community resources such as computer training, resume writing and interview coaching, even clothing closets where they can get the proper attire for an interview or a job. If they are eligible for VA medical care, caseworkers connect them to that as well.
“If I can get hired to do electrical work, they can even help me get tools,” said David Pittman, who has stepped up his job search and says he is willing to sweep sidewalks but still has not found work.
That first night, I didn’t know what to do. I had been out in the woods so long, I slept on the floor.
Coast Guard veteran David Pittman
Once they enrolled in the Supportive Services program through Family Endeavors, it was only a couple of weeks before the Pittman brothers left behind their makeshift shelter in the woods. Working from a list the agency gave them, they found a two-bedroom unit in a large apartment complex on the west side of Fayetteville. The program pays for their bus passes, so they can go to and from the Cumberland County Library’s bank of computers, where they apply for every job opening they can find.
The first night in their new apartment, in mid-December, the brothers looked around incredulously at their good fortune. They had running water, lights, heating and cooling on demand. The place came with inexpensive furnishings, including plastic dishes, worn sofas, a tiny kitchen table and even a television the landlord fetched from his own home.
There was a bed in each room.
“That first night,” David said, “I didn’t know what to do. I had been out in the woods so long, I slept on the floor.”
The next night, he turned down the covers, slipped in, and slept.
What’s happening in Wake County
Homeless advocates in Wake County have worked for decades to house area veterans and have landed funds from the VA’s Supportive Services for Veteran Families every year since the program began.
▪ Passage Home received grants of $153,437 in both fiscal 2012 and 2013, and $289,075 in 2014. In 2014, Virginia-based Volunteers of America of the Carolinas also received $1 million to began administering the program in 27 N.C. counties, including Wake.
▪ Volunteers of America Carolinas was the primary program contractor in Wake County in 2015, receiving a grant for $1,912,500.
▪ 2016 grant recipients working in Wake are Volunteers of America Carolinas and Passage Home. The two agencies received grants totaling $1,821,996, some of which will be used in other counties, including Durham, Orange, Johnston, Chatham, Granville, Harnett and Lee.
▪ Shana Overdorf, executive director of the Raleigh/Wake Partnership to End and Prevent Homelessness, said the list of homeless veterans in the county is down to about 70, and advocates expect to house most of them by mid- to late February.