An End to Veteran Homelessness in Virginia?

Saturday, January 2, 2016

by Dan Sullivan

 photo Obama20serving20homeless20vets_zpsbhe3qamx.jpgThe good news first: our Governor set yesterday as the goal for ending veteran homelessness in Virginia; he declared a “functional end” in November. The bad news: that’s a fairly meaningless accomplishment. There is much to applaud in the administration’s efforts to help veterans in Virginia. Not this.

Loosely, the federal definition of a functional end to veteran homelessness is that there are no homeless veterans except those who have been offered housing and turned it down. It can also mean that the number of veterans becoming homeless is less than or equal to the number who are leaving homelessness. So by definition veterans will remain homeless. But accepting that as reality, the concept was originally operationalized in local jurisdictions where the challenge can be reasonably addressed; communities where the task of identifying homeless veterans and providing accommodations is manageable and meaningful. Finding a homeless veteran in a community and locating nearby housing is different than saying we have more available housing than we have identified homeless veterans statewide; particularly in a state as large as Virginia. It doesn’t matter to a homeless veteran in Winchester that there is a roof available in Norfolk.
Matt Leslie, director of housing development at the Virginia Department of Veteran Services apparently believes “an extra (administrative) layer” by having the state involved provides an umbrella that is more effective than the community based support elsewhere in the nation. What that really allows is an aggregate approach that compares apples to oranges. With the funding and staffing for Virginia Veteran and Family Support inadequate to provide one-stop shopping, an action passed is an action completed. A handoff to another agency or non-profit can constitute task accomplishment; there is no formal follow-up or informal capacity to do so.

Most communities in Virginia have only a vague understanding of their homeless population. There are no consistent local staffing or budgets to define the problem. And Department of Social Service Offices are already overtasked. The bottom line: it is rare that a Virginia community can identify homeless veterans in its jurisdiction much less match them to the resources available. This is most often shuffled off to not-for-profits. 

Nationwide, there are over a dozen cities that have claimed “functional zero.” Only one state, Virginia, has. Another, Connecticut, sort of dodges the whole concept by flatly saying it has ended “chronic homelessness.” There has yet to be a single local Virginia jurisdiction claiming functional zero yet we have a whole state that has. Is this a case where the sum is greater than its parts? No, it is not.