By Robert Davis
In 2015, the VOICE reported that Denver was on its way to creating a “functional zero” population of homeless veterans — where more veterans are leaving homelessness than entering. In early 2015, service providers hoped to reach achieve functional zero by the year’s end.
Since then, the state’s increasingly unaffordable housing market has made it difficult for service providers to find housing for the state’s 427 homeless veterans.
“Denver’s VA has made significant strides by coordinating with our community partners to identify veterans who are homeless and those leaving homelessness behind,” said Mary Mish, program manager for the Community Resource and Referrals Center at the Department of Veteran Affairs.
“But, right now, affordable housing is keeping us from housing the veterans who need it most.”
Veterans who cannot afford housing rely on the VA’s benefit programs including Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing (VASH) vouchers, and rapid re-housing programs such as Supportive Services for Veteran Families (SSVF) in order to afford housing. Both VASH and SSVF rely on HUD’s Fair Market Rent (FMR) calculations, which are updated annually, in order to distribute the appropriate funds to veterans.
HUD’s 2018 FMR calculations for Denver County were $1,127 for a one-bedroom apartment, over $200 short of the average one-bedroom rental price of $1,388. A recent survey of Denver’s rental market by RentCafe, a real estate website, found that the average rent in the city is $1,535, a 10 percent increase since 2015.
Earlier this year, Colorado added 40 vouchers thanks to a $310,101 grant from HUD in April. Colorado currently has nearly 1000 VASH Vouchers to distribute, 400 of which are in Denver. Rock Mountain Human Services (RMHS), one of the Colorado VA’s community partners, has nearly 600.
The reason to divide the vouchers is simple: not all homeless veterans live in the metro area. In fact, the disparity between services and veterans is greatest in rural Colorado, according to Brenton Hutson, Division Director at Volunteers of America (VoA) Colorado, another one of the VA’s community partners.
“One of the greatest challenges we face as a service provider is that our systems for collecting information about homeless veterans are just not good enough,” Hutson said. “If we can’t collect information we need correctly, how can we accurately budget services for those who need them most?”
Hutson points to an outdated data system and funders not participating in Point-in-Time counts as areas where improvements can make a large difference in the number of veterans who will receive care. This would give funders an inside perspective into how to improve data collection systems, Hutson argues.
“It’s hard to address a problem when you don’t know how big it really is. It’s like we’re designing our services around phantoms,” Hutson said.
Mish and Hutson agree that there are areas in which service providers can improve. But the issue of housing hasn’t wavered. Mish says housing veterans together is a potential solution. However, it can be difficult placing veterans who suffer from PTSD or physical disabilities with other veterans and for many, single units are unaffordable.
“We simply can’t place veterans in housing that they can’t afford,” Mish said.
Denver’s VA has countered the city’s affordability problems by establishing partnerships with local organizations such as the Metro Denver Homeless Initiative (MDHI) and RMHS to help identify veterans in need and get them the services they deserve.
“The VA has become increasingly community-partner centric since 2015. This has helped us find new veterans and get them connected with our services. Unfortunately, many more are still unaware of they are eligible for those services,” Mish said.
The VA coordinates outreach efforts with VoA, RMHS, and other local organizations to ensure only one agency is the primary point-of-contact for veterans in need. This work includes housing referrals, help accessing benefits and referrals to resources such as medical care, financial planning, employment assistance and mental health services.
Even though Point-in-Time counts show a stagnant homeless veteran population, Denver made strides toward achieving a functional-zero population in 2018, according to Sheri Repinski, Executive Director of RMHS. Those steps include expanding the city’s housing fund and issuing bonds to pay for future Denver Housing Authority developments and land purchases.
“It will take a concerted effort from city leaders, private businesses, nonprofits and the community to end veteran homelessness. But, the momentum has shifted and is driving Denver in the right direction to reach ‘functional zero’ in the near future,” Repinski stated.
To Hutson, this momentum is key to achieving “functional zero.” Service providers have developed a strong collaboration as a continuum to develop and implement a coordinated entry system to identify those on the streets who need care and match them with available resources.
“Look around the nation, communities effective in creating a functional zero population have a common denomination: systematized entry,” Hutson said.
This approach has already delivered results for Colorado’s homeless veterans. In 2016, the Point-In-Time survey identified 551 homeless veterans. By 2018, that number dropped to 427, just over 12 percent of the total homeless population.
Other states have taken notice of Colorado’s progress as well. Between 2011 and 2017, Denver cut its homeless veteran population by 59 percent, according to a 2018 report comparing homeless veteran population in major metropolitan areas published by Washington State’s Department of Commerce.
During that time, Denver multiplied the amount of VASH vouchers distributed in the metro area by nine. In 2008, there were 175 vouchers distributed by a single housing authority. By 2016, the number of vouchers grew to 949 distributed by five housing authorities.
Denver City Council took a proactive approach to the problem in June by outlawing Section 8 discrimination in rental applications. Still, Denver’s low vacancy rate makes it difficult to place many of the city’s most vulnerable veterans into housing.
“In the end, solving this problem is about strengthening our partnerships and our systems,” Mish said. “Because without a strong team, there is no way we’re going to win this fight.” ■