COMMENTARY: Ending homelessness takes a complex effort

Is it possible to effectively end homelessness in Dover and Kent County?

When we look at the problem of homelessness, in general, we might be tempted to say that ending homelessness is a hopeless cause. There have always been homeless people among us and it seems that homelessness is just a part of the human condition.

It’s difficult to get our arms around the problem because we don’t know exactly how many are homeless; where they are; why they are homeless or, even, who they are. Nearly every community in Kent County, in Delaware and across the country has a homeless population, whether they realize it or not.

It’s difficult to know the exact number of homeless people in any given community because of the transitory nature of homelessness. Through the efforts of volunteers who go out and try to contact the homeless in most communities in every state, attempts are made to at least estimate the number of homeless.

In its annual report for 2016, the U. S. Department of Housing and Urban Development estimated that, on any given night, as many as 546,928 people experienced homelessness in our country. That same report estimated that 1,070 people experienced homelessness in Delaware on any given night.

Bill Farley

The Housing Alliance of Delaware coordinates the annual effort to estimate the number of homeless in Delaware. In their State of Housing and Homelessness in Delaware report for 2017, they estimate that 1,015 are experiencing some form of homelessness on any given night in our state. More than 60 percent of Delaware’s homeless population were found in New Castle County.

For the third year in a row the estimated rate of homelessness in Kent County has increased to 22 percent of the homeless in our state. In Sussex County the estimated rate of homelessness also increased to 13.5 percent of Delaware homeless in 2017.

When we look only at the numbers, it’s hard to see how homelessness can even be reduced, let alone effectively ended. To begin to develop solutions to the problems involved in homelessness, we must look more closely at the individuals, the people, represented by those numbers.

In Dover, Mayor Christiansen has been determined to address the problem of homelessness, and we have had some success.

Among those who make up the homeless population nationally, veterans comprise about 11 percent of the total number of those who experience homelessness on any given night. In November of 2014, Mayor Christiansen signed on to the Mayors Challenge to End Veterans Homelessness, a national program initiated at the suggestion of Mrs. Obama and Mrs. Biden.

This national program has a local focus. The idea is to have mayors marshal the resources available to their communities to focus on identifying the homeless veterans in that community and to resolve the problems leading to each case of homelessness.

The mayor convened a Task Force of volunteers to study veterans homelessness in Dover. I was honored to be a member of that task force. We reviewed the problem, identified the resources available, and considered actions being taken in other communities throughout the country. In January 2015, the task force developed a statewide summit to bring together elements of the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Department of Housing and Urban Development with the Dover Housing Authority; the Delaware State Housing Authority; the Delaware Commission of Veterans Affairs; the Delaware National Guard; Dover Interfaith Mission for Housing and many other state and local government agencies; charities; shelters; and volunteers.

More than 100 people attended that summit, and from that came the Dover Veterans Welcome Home Team comprised of volunteer representatives from the VA; HUD; DSHA; the DCVA; Delaware Department of Labor; Dover City Management staff and Dover Housing Authority; Dover Interfaith Mission for Housing; Connections; Veterans Multi-Service Center and individual volunteers. The mayor was an active member of this team.

Also, in January 2015, then-Gov. Markell made ending veterans homelessness one of the priorities listed in his State of the State speech, and he later designated the Delaware State Housing Authority to be the lead state agency in this effort.

The Dover Veterans Welcome Home Team began to identify actual homeless veterans in Dover and to make them the center of the solution to their individual problems. With team members from federal, state and local agencies, we found that it was possible to alleviate bureaucratic difficulties and to make progress immediately, using the housing first model. We also identified imbalances in the amount and distribution of some HUD/Veterans Administration resources in Delaware, such as housing vouchers.

We found that the availability and accessibility of housing units and the perceptions of some landlords regarding homeless veterans needed to be improved. At the same time, we assisted the Delaware State Housing Authority in the formation of teams to help homeless veterans in New Castle and Sussex Counties and in the development of the State Working Group on Veterans Homelessness.

As the Housing Alliance of Delaware points out in their 2017 report, the Housing First Model “is an evidence-based best practice rooted in the belief that all people deserve, and are ready for, a safe place to live in our communities, regardless of their personal hardships or circumstances.” For veterans, in addition to the complex set of factors influencing all homelessness — extreme shortage of affordable housing, livable income and access to health care — a large number of displaced and at-risk veterans live with lingering effects of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and substance abuse, which are compounded by a lack of family and social support networks.

In addition, military occupations and training are not always transferable to the civilian workforce, placing some veterans at a disadvantage when completing for employment.

A top priority for homeless veterans is secure, safe, clean housing that offers a supportive environment free of drugs and alcohol. As is true nationally, veterans from every era from WWII through the present conflicts are represented among Delaware’s homeless veteran population. Almost all are honorably discharged veterans.

Since this collaborative effort began, Delaware has succeeded in reducing veterans homelessness for the third year in a row. As of September 2017, the programs developed to identify and assist homeless veterans have resulted in permanent housing for 656 formerly homeless veterans. As might be expected, New Castle County accounts for 57 percent of veterans housed, while Kent County accounts for 20 percent and Sussex County 19 percent. An additional 4 percent have been assisted to find housing out of state.

Most importantly, we have identified by name the 93 veterans who have not yet been housed statewide. Because of the network that has been established we have the capability to locate and identify veterans who may become homeless.

One essential element to this success is the case management services provided by the VA and organizations, such as Connections and Veterans Multi-Service Centers, that are contracted by the VA to work with veterans in need. These case management resources help veterans find housing, but, more importantly, they follow up on an individual basis with each veteran to help them connect with the services and VA benefits they may need to establish a stable life going forward.

Although the circumstances of a homeless person may outwardly appear to be the same as many others, the solutions to ending that homelessness are as unique as the individuals themselves.

On Veterans Day 2016, Vice President Biden and then-Secretary of HUD Julian Castro, honored Delaware as one of only three states to have met the criteria for having effectively ended veterans homelessness. Of course, that doesn’t mean that there are no more homeless veterans in Delaware, but the continuing statewide collaborative programs now in place provide the hope that, in Delaware, a homeless veteran should not have to remain homeless for very long, anymore.

The work done and the approach taken to reduce the number of homeless veterans helps take some of the pressure off the resources available to assist the general homeless population; however, veterans now comprise only 9 percent of statewide homeless population. The success of the veterans program provides only a hint at what might be done to reduce overall homelessness.

Encouraged by the success of the work done with homeless veterans, Mayor Christiansen assembled a blue ribbon panel to study the problem of homelessness among Dover’s general population.

In June, that panel provided a report titled “A Housing Pathway for the Homeless,” which was presented to the mayor and to the Dover City Council. Based on input from organizations that work with the homeless in Dover every day, the panel estimated that between 300 and 400 adults experience some form of homelessness in Dover and described in detail the state of homelessness in Dover.

The report made several recommendations for approaching the problem of homelessness, including the need for collaboration with federal, state and local agencies and private entities and the establishment of a task force to guide efforts to end homelessness. The mayor has established that task force and they have begun to work on developing solutions to the various difficulties involved.

We have a long way to go to, but, based upon the success of the work we did for veterans, I am optimistic that in collaboration with the state of Delaware, we can effectively end homelessness for Dover’s general population so that we can someday say that, in Dover, no one needs to remain homeless for very long, anymore.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Bill Farley is chairman of the Delaware Commission of Veterans Affairs.

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