Philadelphia Keeping Veteran Homelessness At ‘Functional Zero’

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) –– It’s been nearly two years since Philadelphia declared that it had reduced veteran homelessness to “functional zero,” after housing some 1,300 veterans, leaving fewer than 20 veterans living on the street, and those by their own choice.

While much of the Trump administration agenda seems directed toward reversing programs begun by President Obama, Veterans Administration officials say there’s been no let up in the effort to end veteran homelessness.

“We maintain a system and resources to provide a permanent housing solution to any veteran that wants that,” says Casey McCollum, Homeless Affairs coordinator at the VA Medical Center in West Philadelphia. “Nothing has slowed down, if anything we continue to add resources.”

She says the PhillyVetsHome coalition, a collaboration of city, federal and non-profit partners, continues to meet biweekly and has been able to keep the number of homeless vets low (between 20 and 30, they estimate), despite occasional setbacks, through a continuous effort that includes outreach and housing with support services.

The very term “functional zero,” she notes, is an acknowledgement that there will always be some veterans who drift into homelessness but that it will be rare and, the hope is, brief.

“It focuses on an effective system, effective resources and enough resources,” says McCollum, “and that remains true.”

Public awareness of the effort can sometimes be undermined by panhandlers’ with signs claiming to be homeless vets. Officials say they may not necessarily be homeless or veterans.

“Don’t believe everything you read,” says Liz Hersh, director of Philadelphia’s Office of Homeless Services.

A man sitting on Market Street with a hand-drawn sign stating, “Homeless U.S. Army Iraq War Vet,” said he’d been in the 82nd Airborne, 501st Regiment. Asked when he was in Iraq, he responded, “2002.” The U.S. invaded Iraq in March 2003. The 501st is part of the 101st Airborne Division, not the 82nd.

“I didn’t do any fighting or anything like that,” he said, when reminded the U.S. was in not Iraq, but Afghanistan, in 2002.

Despite the enormous effort that goes in to keeping veterans off the street, coalition partners say they’re not frustrated by such claims. They also say not all the signs are deliberately misleading.

One provider suggested sign-holders may “self-identify” as veterans but don’t meet VA requirements for services, which are 24 months of active service or 90 days of wartime service and an honorable discharge.

Another notes that veterans sometimes remain on the street while the VA checks their discharge status, though McCollum says the wait is short.

“We have a number of resources, mechanisms to check that through a computer system. Sometimes depending on the circumstances, we may need to get a little more verification,” she says, “but those things happen pretty quickly.”

In any case, partners and providers urge anyone who sees someone they believe to be a homeless veteran to call outreach at 215-232-1984.

“Every time I see a sign that says ‘veteran.. help,’ I stop, give them my card and tell them there are services available,” says Tim Williams, executive director of the Veterans Multi-Service Center, which provides housing and support services for the effort.

He says bringing in reluctant veterans has been the hardest work.

“There are some folks who don’t want to come in from the cold, who mistrust the system,” he says. “We have to work very hard to gain their trust and there are some folks who do have trust issues and perhaps have not gotten the services they required previously but we can make sure that happens now.”

Williams has also had to re-house veterans who come in and then become homeless again.

“We place them again and them put some more wrap-around services around them to help sustain them,” he said.

One of the most tragic setbacks for the program was the case of Bernard Eury, a vet who’d been given a place in a North Philadelphia boarding house as part of the effort to end veteran homelessness.

He was found guilty, last month, of stabbing to death another man, who’d been living with him. Court records show Eury had a long history of alcoholism and erratic behavior.

Eury is housed now at the Philadelphia Industrial Correctional Center, awaiting sentence.

More from Pat Loeb
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