Cities across US slash homelessness for veterans

This article was originally published in the Boston Globe.

By Brian MacQuarrie

NEW YORK — Perched on a Spartan bed with a simple metal frame, a tiny bathroom only a few feet away, 61-year-old George Gisoldi beams as he surveys his shoebox-size domain.

The disabled Air Force veteran is no longer homeless.

“I have a home to go to. I have a place to go to. I’m somebody,” Gisoldi, a native New Yorker, said as sunlight streamed through oversize windows at a former Catholic school in Brooklyn.

Gisoldi is part of a national response to a federal call to move veterans off the streets. In New York, red tape has been cut, staffing added and consolidated, and veterans identified shelter by shelter, street corner by street corner.

As a result, the homeless veterans living on the street in this teeming city of 8 million have all but disappeared.

“We’re down to fewer than 10, and we know who they are,” said Loree Sutton, a retired Army brigadier general who is the city’s commissioner of veterans affairs.

New York is not alone. In Boston, a city with less than one-tenth the population of New York, the latest count showed three veterans living on the street.

Four major cities — Philadelphia, Houston, Las Vegas, and New Orleans — have gone further and effectively ended all veteran homelessness, said Richard Cho, deputy director of the US Interagency Council on Homelessness. Cho said in an interview that those cities have reached a level of “functional zero.”

Eighteen other US cities and counties, as well as the states of Connecticut and Virginia, also have met that goal.

Boston and New York are close but not quite at that benchmark. At this point, the two cities have ended what the federal government calls “chronic homelessness” among veterans. That definition includes any veteran who has a disability, and has been homeless for a year, or has had four episodes of homelessness over three years.

Five years ago, New York counted 4,677 veterans in shelters, transitional housing, and on the streets. By Feb. 22 this year, the number had fallen to 489, according to Mayor Bill de Blasio’s office.

In New York, the palpable progress has not erased some skepticism of officials’ claim that fewer than 10 veterans are living on the street.

“I would be wary of saying that is the be-all and end-all number,” said Giselle Routhier, policy director for the nonprofit Coalition for the Homeless.

Canvassers might miss veterans in such an immense city, for example, and some homeless people might not identify themselves as veterans.

But whatever the actual figure — and New York officials concede the total is only a best effort — the city has made reducing veteran homelessness a priority. It’s a complicated undertaking anywhere, but within New York’s byzantine and entrenched bureaucracy, the task should be exponentially harder.

Instead, the process has become more efficient, said Sutton, who was appointed veterans commissioner in September. Later this year, veterans services is scheduled to leave the umbrella of the mayor’s office to become a separate department.

“We’ve embraced the problem of veterans homelessness as an opportunity,” Sutton said. “If you boiled down New York City’s success to one word, it’s ‘relationships.’ ”

A growing web of relationships includes a partnership with Catholic Charities, which approached the city with plans to set aside 22 subsidized apartments for homeless veterans at the longtime grammar school where Gisoldi now lives in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood.

Catholic Charities had the space, and the city had a list of homeless veterans. Matches were made, and the veterans began moving in late last year.

“We really wanted to do something to make a difference,” said Claire Hilger, senior vice president at Catholic Charities of Brooklyn and Queens. “The city is focused on identifying the veterans, and they’re going after every single apartment they can get.”

The Jericho Project, a New York-based group that seeks to end homelessness, has provided 132 apartments for veterans, according to Tori Lyon, its chief executive officer.

The vast majority of veterans have been housed with federal or local subsidies that cap rent payments at no more than 30 percent of income. The housing includes private-market apartments, city or state subsidized buildings, and residences with support services.

Overall, the city found permanent housing for 527 veterans in December and January, said Steven Banks, commissioner of the city’s Human Resources Administration, whose portfolio includes homelessness. “Resources matter, as well as a clear command structure,” Banks said.

Simplifying the maze has been critical, said Patricia Dawson, another senior vice president at Catholic Charities, because “there are so many pieces that have to be mobilized.”

But mobilized they have been. A similar effort unfolded in Boston, where the city Department of Neighborhood Development has led a broad collaboration of public and nonprofit partners to find housing for homeless veterans.

“It’s an all-hands-on-deck process,” said Laila Bernstein, who heads the department’s drive to end homelessness.

Boston has reduced veteran homelessness by 44 percent since 2013, city officials said. In February, 250 veterans were homeless, compared with 450 just over two years ago.

As in New York, data are kept and updated on every veteran known to be homeless in Boston. Large meetings are convened regularly to plan and brainstorm. And veterans reach out to homeless peers to guide them through the system, which has been reinforced by a surge of federal housing vouchers and support services.

New York has dedicated scores of employees to the effort; city-paid veterans are guiding their homeless peers through a maze of agencies to secure benefits; and prospective landlords are being canvassed to gauge their interest.

In addition, $1,000 bonuses are being paid to brokers and landlords for providing housing, and the city is making up some of the shortfall if a previously homeless veteran falls behind in the rent.

“The city has made leaps and bounds,” said Samuel Innocent, an Afghanistan veteran who is policy director at the New York City Veterans Alliance, an advocacy group. Despite the strides, Innocent said, he is uncertain whether the city can sustain this success. “I feel that if we reach functional zero, the city will be quick to say, ‘We’re done.’ It’s never a done issue,” Innocent said.

In Brooklyn, Lonnie Selleck, a 71-year-old Army veteran of the Vietnam War, looked around his new apartment in Bedford-Stuyvesant and compared conditions in the small but clean space with the rats, the dilapidated walls, and the fights that had made living at a shelter such a struggle.

“That’s it,” Selleck said, shaking his head slightly. “No more of that, I hope.”