By Sarah Ford
Though Dana Niemela had given eight years of service to the military when she left in 2005, it took another five for her to call herself a veteran. In fact, it wasn’t until she had spent five years working in the private sector that fellow veterans encouraged her to visit Veterans Affairs (VA), where she found out she qualified as a disabled veteran.
“It took that long for somebody to finally pound it into my head that, number one, I was a veteran, and that, number two, I was entitled to benefits,” said Niemela. “I thought ‘well, what’s happening to other people?’’’
The thought inspired her to return to school, where she received a masters in social work from the University of Denver. While still in school, she landed the role of the Denver Human Services manager of veteran services.
Three years later, she may be there to witness the functional end of veteran homelessness in Denver.
Experts say that Denver is getting close to reaching a “functional zero” in veteran homelessness—the point where more veterans are leaving homelessness behind than entering it. U.S. Department of Housing (HUD) statistics show a shrinking gap in care, fueled by increased efforts all the way from the national level to the hyper local level that may soon mean a new phase in veteran homelessness: one of prevention.
Earlier this year, the VoA projected that 411 veterans would need assistance with rapid rehousing programs in 2015, with the projected ability to place 414. Overall, of the 931 veterans projected to need programs assistance at the beginning of the year, the VoA projected the ability to offer assistance to 1134 individuals—which means they predicted they had the capacity to help more than the number of people who would need their services.
The results of the 2015 Point-in-Time survey shifted expectations. During the PIT survey, volunteers go out and attempt to physically count or survey everyone experiencing homelessness at one point in time. The survey results, just published last month, revealed more than the anticipated number of homeless veterans.
Early calculations place intervention need at roughly 33 percent above the original numbers, eliminating the service excess projected for 2015 with a total need of 1378. Still, Brenton Hutson, VoA division director of veteran services, says he believes functional zero can be reached this year.
“It’s just a matter of housing availability and getting people referred to us,” said Hutson. “But the system necessary for both items are in place right now and getting worked on.”
Service providers met through the end of last month to assess ways to meet the new numbers.
“It’s not the capacity that is the issue, really,” Hutson said. “I would still feel pretty confidant that we can hit our goal by the end of the year.”
From 2013-14, veteran homelessness in the U.S. decreased 10.3 percent, with Colorado seeing a 9.9 percent decrease. Though numbers rose in 2015, Hutson sees it as a result of expanded programs to identify and track veteran homelessness both in the 2015 Point-in-Time Survey and in mandated practices.
Increased federal programs have put a spotlight on veteran homelessness across the nation, urging states and cities to amp up their efforts to find a solution. Initiatives include the Mayor’s Challenge to end veteran homelessness. Mayor Michael Hancock was one of 460 mayors to accept the challenge, resulting in increased Housing and Urban Development (HUD) attention to veteran rapid rehousing through Veteran Affairs Supportive Housing (HUD-VASH). In March of last year, the Department of Veteran’s Affairs also launched their 25 Cities Initiative to end homelessness by 2015 targeting the 25 communities with the highest rates of homelessness, among which Denver qualifies.
Now, four cities including New Orleans, Salt Lake City, Houston, and Phoenix have declared the end of veteran homelessness. Experts see increasing collaboration as the path to adding Denver to that growing list.
“Before those other cities made their announcements of reaching zero, Denver was on its way and being recognized for its solid partnerships,” said Niemela.
With amplified resources and funding, Hutson said he hopes to see the gap filled. In his time with VoA, he said, he has seen the nature of the work change significantly to bring them to this point.
“When I first came on board three years ago, and you still see it now, veteran services was a field that enjoyed an overabundance of resources, but a pretty stunning lack of coordination and collaboration between providers,” he said.
Scott Strong, head of the VA Eastern Colorado’s Healthcare for Homeless Veterans Program, and VA public affairs officer Dan Warvi said the disconnects in services motivated a change to a more statistically focused and collaborative approach starting around 2009, when the Mayor’s Challenge was launched.
“Everyone started looking around and saying ‘we need to do something,’” said Warvi. “A lot of good and smart people started asking the same question at the same time.”
They’ve worked hard to make that change, beginning several joint events including monthly collaborator meetings and the quarterly hosting of veteran “one-stop shop” resource fairs, where veterans can make connections with healthcare and housing opportunities.
Fueled by the success of these initiatives, Hutson also opened a resource center on Santa Fe Dr. this month, which houses several partners providing an array of services from housing programs to education and employment opportunities.
Niemela’s program has seen dramatic increases in the number of female veterans and women with children seeking services. But she sees this as a positive sign. It means more people are doing what she struggled to do, and asking for help.
Identification of homeless veterans has also been a boon to Strong’s work. He expects to see over 1,200 HUD VASH vouchers dispersed this year across Colorado, thanks partly to a HUD and VA award of $615, 859 to the program in April.
With Colorado drawing closer to a functional zero in veteran homelessness, Hutson hopes it can have impact for other populations as well.
“The tremendous thing about this is that these initiatives...also have far-reaching implications for what it means for Colorado to not only end veteran homelessness, but end homelessness throughout the state,” he said. “If there is anything that this push to end veteran homelessness has taught us, it’s that there is a solution, there’s a way to end it.” ■