The Country’s Largest City Housed Virtually All The Veterans Living On Its Streets. Now What?

This piece was originally published in THINK PROGRESS by Bryce Covert.

Last February, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio (D) made a pledge, along with a number of other mayors across the country, to end homelessness for all veterans in his city by the end of 2015.

By the end of the year, the federal government announced that the city had officially met a portion of that goal: housing all chronically homeless veterans, or those who have been homeless for at least a year or four separate times over the past three. All of the identified chronically homeless veterans have now been housed, are on a path to permanent housing, or have refused housing. There are currently five veterans who fall into the latter category, according to the city, and providers continue to offer them assistance.

New York City wasn’t the first to get to this milestone: Phoenix and Salt Lake City ended chronic veteran homelessness in 2013 and 2014, respectively. But it is the largest city to do so.

Even so, it missed its own goal of ending overall veteran homelessness — something that has already been achieved in Virginia, New Orleans, Houston, and Las Cruces, New Mexico — thanks to some New York City-specific obstacles that stood in the way. According to the city’s figures at the end of 2015, there are 760 remaining homeless veterans, including about 400 in city shelters and 200 who are in shelters but have a place to move into this month. That’s a significant reduction from more than 3,700 homeless veterans in the city two years ago.

The city plans to keep going. “This Administration is committed to continuing to work full-time to provide all homeless veterans with quality care, services, resources, and housing,” said Human Resources Administration Commissioner Steven Banks in a statement.

But much more will have to be done to get the city over that finish line.

Tori Lyon, executive director of the New York City homeless nonprofit Jericho Project, is part of the city’s task force that’s working on getting to the goal of ending veteran homelessness. “We didn’t quite make the December 31 deadline,” she said, “but we’re still on track to meet the goal of ending veteran homelessness.” The city has already submitted paperwork with the federal Interagency Council on Homelessness, which certifies which cities and states have ended homelessness, and expects to find out whether it has met the goal in the coming months.

One of the biggest hurdles has not necessarily been marshaling resources — $150 million poured into the city, plus its own resources — but addressing an issue many New Yorkers are familiar with: actually finding open, affordable apartments and landlords willing to let vets in. “We’ve already passed the point where we have resources to match the need,” Lyon said. “Lots of vouchers have been made available. The challenge has been to actually find apartments.”

December was particularly difficult, she said, because so few people move close to the holidays. But overall, of course, “There are just not enough units of affordable housing.” The city’s vacancy rate in 2014 was just 3.45 percent — and that’s for all apartments, on both the high and low end of cost.

“We just need more housing,” agreed Christina Narine, director of outreach at the Goddard Riverside Community Center. But, she added, “We need housing our clients are open to accepting.” The type and location of the housing matters. A lot of the buildings that have been offered to homeless veterans have been in the outreaches of Queens or the Bronx, far from the community and services that the veterans have been connected to in Manhattan. Many of the units are also shared apartments, which presents a challenge for veterans who have been used to living alone and may be struggling with PTSD or mental illness. “Offering them living arrangements they just know will not work for them is not a good solution,” she said.

Supportive housing — which wraps in services like counseling or case workers on site — is even scarcer. But it can also make the difference for a homeless person struggling to adjust to being indoors. “Giving them a key to an apartment may look good because they’re off the street,” Narine said, “but if we want to keep them housed…we’ve got to get it right and get them into appropriate housing.” Yet the current projects to build more supportive housing will take years to come on line.

Over the last six months or so, the city has been taking a number of new steps toward its goal, including engaging landlords and offering them incentives for taking homeless veterans and their rental vouchers, leasing whole buildings to help house homeless vets, and converting shelter space into permanent housing. The short timeline is part of what’s delayed meeting the goal. “All of that stuff…frankly should have probably started a year ago and not six months ago,” Lyon said.

Vouchers will also only go so far. Narine said her organization has been unable to help a single client with a Living in Communities (LINC) rental voucher — vouchers aimed at helping people move out of shelters — get accepted by a landlord. “We’ve made hundreds of phone calls to landlords,” she said. “Even with those vouchers, they can’t find housing.”

Still, Narine has been impressed with the what the city’s efforts have accomplished. “It’s the first time I saw measurable outcomes, where there was a direct impact on housing veterans,” she said. Her group, which works with all homeless people in Manhattan living on the streets above ground, only has seven chronically homeless veterans in its caseload, one who is waiting for a spot in a new building whose opening has been delayed and a few others who are ready to move indoors when a spot opens up. “I’m actually very impressed to say that all of the Manhattan Outreach Consortium only has seven veterans on caseload in the street,” she said.

The remaining veterans will inevitably be the most challenging to move inside. Some have bad discharge papers that disqualify them for Veterans Affairs services; others are registered sex offenders. “The folks that are left are among the hardest to place,” Lyon said.

But deadline or no, she’s committed to the goal of ending veteran homelessness. “We don’t want to give up just because December 31 came and went,” she said.