Abilene finds a way to house all its homeless veterans

Posted at 7:01 AM, Mar 06, 2019
and last updated 2019-03-06 08:01:06-05

By Shelby Copeland, CNN

(CNN) Roughly 40,000 veterans are homeless in America every single day, according to a report by the US Interagency Council on Homelessness.

Yet the Texas city of Abilene has succeeded at something that only eight other communities can boast: It has found a way to house its homeless veteran population.

A slew of homeless assistance organizations and Abilene Mayor Anthony Williams officially set an agenda for the city: to find a way to end homelessness for veterans in 100 days. The effort to house the city’s 30 homeless veterans began in October, and it has become a life-changing reality for veterans in the city.

The United States Interagency Council on Homelessness determines an “end” to veteran homelessness by how well a community’s system is able to support the number of active homeless veterans in their area, and how it keeps veterans from becoming homeless.

The case of Abilene is a study in what it takes to do this, but not many other communities can replicate it. Dozens of local and state leaders throughout the country are working on the issue.

How Abilene beat veteran homelessness

For Abilene, the effort to get housing for veterans first focused on gathering data on how many were in the area.

The Supportive Services for Veteran Families program of the West Central Texas Regional Foundation connected with case managers from around the community to reach homeless veterans, said John Meier, the program director. The regional group collaborated with food banks, encampments and police volunteers.

Then the group and other homeless assistance programs took the data to Abilene’s mayor to seek action.

“Once organizations created a system, it energized the movement,” Williams said.

When a city finds housing for all its homeless veterans, it’s at a level known as “functional zero.” This doesn’t mean that there will never be another homeless veteran in the area, but rather that the city has a system in place to quickly and permanently house those who are identified, according to the official USICH criteria.

The criteria outlines four benchmarks that a community must meet before declaring an end to veteran homelessness: an end to chronic and long-term veteran homelessness, veterans’ quick access to permanent housing, sufficient permanent housing capacity and veterans’ access to transitional housing.

In Abilene, no more than eight veterans should be homeless at the end of every month, Meier said.

“It forces your system to house them as quickly as possible in order for veterans to maintain housing,” he said.
Aimee Hill is one homeless veteran who benefited from Abilene’s system.

Three weeks after meeting with a Supportive Services for Veteran Families program representative, Hill no longer needed to stay on a friend’s couch or live in her car.

“It’s absolute despair. You’re in a constant state of panic inside,” Hill said about her life before the program. “It’s hard to breathe because you don’t know what’s going to happen in your life.”

She was honorably discharged last year after 10 months in the Air Force, Hill said. She was suffering from depression and through her therapist she met a program representative who helped her find a personalized housing plan.

The challenge for most communities, Meier said, is not having enough services and programs available to meet the needs of homeless veterans in the area.

A call for action

In 2014, then-first lady Michelle Obama and then-second lady Dr. Jill Biden officially launched the Mayors Challenge to End Veteran Homelessness. The challenge called on local and state leaders to commit to ending veteran homelessness. At its start, 800 city and county officials signed on and agreed to the challenge.

Three states — Connecticut, Delaware and Virginia — and 66 regional communities have announced a commitment to end veteran homelessness, according to the US Department of Veterans Affairs.

Abilene’s mayor said he wants to keep up the momentum. He plans to announce an initiative that will tackle his city’s entire homeless population.