From Barracks to Apartments: Serving Vets in Transition

Posted by Flynann Janisse on August 25, 2016

In America’s current political environment, it seems nearly impossible to find common ground for the sake of governance. Fortunately, affordable housing offers something to everyone across a broad political and ideological spectrum. When tasked with fulfilling America’s commitment to those who defend our nation, Congress can be remarkably proficient. As regular readers of Shelterforce know, with the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2008, Congress provided $75 million to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to create the Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing (VASH) program. This initial funding was specifically focused on rapidly housing 10,000 homeless veterans. Even more importantly, it enlisted a Housing First model removing many of the regular stumbling blocks for the homeless, such as sobriety testing or mental illness screenings, thus allowing counseling and treatment services to reach an otherwise transient population.

VASH was modeled after the best parts of the most successful rental production program available, the Low Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC). Combined with the Housing First model, VASH’s primary goal is to not only end veteran homelessness, but to sustain that veteran in permanent housing. Overall, the program has been extraordinarily successful in meeting these goals. Since its inception, over 85,000 vouchers have been awarded, motivating Congress to provide new funding in 2012, making an additional $75 million available that fiscal year. According to the latest data available, 80 percent of those enrolled in the Supportive Services for Veteran Families program were transitioned to permanent housing. Housing becomes the incentive for maintaining participation in critical services, as well as the catalyst for accurately and successfully delivering treatment services. Having a purpose-built community with supportive services means that veterans have access to a communal support system in a safe, consistent environment. An onsite resident services coordinator can be a conduit of information to the case manager, making the veteran’s treatment more manageable. This model not only promotes the management of a therapeutic regimen, but also reduces the stress of that process on the individual. This is an important point as there is a direct correlation between reduced stress and the effectiveness of a case manager or doctor’s care. Regular patterns and the establishment of expectations in a stable housing environment has a proven ability to prevent relapse.

Vouchers are awarded in every state, meaning that with our coast-to-coast footprint, Rainbow sees the case for more service-enriched housing for veterans in every market that we serve. A quick review of any military branch’s creed will reveal the paramount importance placed on one’s unit, so equally important to the physical structure are the types of supportive services that are made available to the residents. We have found a tremendous amount of crossover in need. In many cases, a branch of the military has been the only employer that a young man or woman has known. Employment readiness skills such as how to look for a job, write a resume and practice interviewing are all essential for veterans transitioning into civilian life. We also understand that being on “kitchen patrol” in a mess hall is completely different than having to care for a place of your own, which make life-skills courses, such as fire safety and housekeeping, an important component.

Though there are several ways that existing services fit the needs of this population, there are special needs that have surfaced since the program’s inception. Community building must be at the core of any Housing First veterans’ project, and examples of effective community building are the programs where veterans were paired with animals. The Veterans Health Administration has engaged recreational therapists to provide equine therapy for PTSD management. Working with an animal weighing upwards of 1,200 pounds, such as a horse, requires focus, taking attention away from an inner struggle. Over a period of time, the individual becomes more relaxed, learns the horse’s personality, and bonds with the animal in a nonverbal way which ultimately promotes positive societal behavior. Similar success has been found when veterans train service dogs. These programs are designed to build trust and camaraderie making the whole community stronger.

Continued successful outcomes like these require a greater emphasis on getting veterans rapidly housed in support-enriched communities. Leveraging the Housing First model, the industry as a whole cannot only improve the speed and efficiency of delivering services to veterans, but also combine those lessons learned to tackle the broader homelessness problem. Beyond homelessness, highlighting the successes of supportive housing makes the case to have it more readily available. Stagnant wages and increased rents directly translate into housing cost burden (more than 700,000 veteran households are spending more than 50 percent of their income on housing – an unsustainable percentage). Long an advocate of combining housing plus supportive services, we know getting housed is key; however, the wrap-around supportive services are what make it successful and sustainable for everyone involved.

For more on the topic of veterans, homelessness, and housing, see Shelterforce's "Almost Home" Spring 2014 issue.

(Photo credit: Air Force veteran Norris Fletcher received a HUD-VASH voucher. Courtesy of the Housing Authority of DeKalb County).

About the author more ยป

Flynann Janisse is the executive director of Rainbow Housing Assistance Corporation (Rainbow), a nonprofit organization that provides service-enriched housing programs for residents of rental housing communities throughout the country. Throughout the United States, Rainbow seeks to create and preserve quality, affordable housing for families and individuals of diverse ethnic, social and economic backgrounds.

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