By Gregory A. Shinn, MSW
Associate Director and Chief Housing Officer
Mental Health Association Oklahoma
Veterans living on the streets face drastically reduced life expectancies and account for huge public costs in emergency service usage. So how do we change and save lives by ending veteran homelessness in Tulsa? The solution is helping them achieve housing and connecting them to services in the community, including mental and physical healthcare and job training.
For many veterans, reintegration into the larger community can be a huge challenge. Adjustment to civilian life, reconnecting with families and in many cases, recovering from the traumatic experiences associated with combat and/or putting one’s self in harm’s way are some of the challenges facing veterans. These adjustments are specific and unique to each individual, though they may also be similar in many respects.
For veterans who end up experiencing homelessness, it can be particularly difficult to connect to critical supportive services in the community. Though many veterans with disabilities may be eligible for disability payments through the VA, this is a process that can take time. With little or no income, access to housing options is even more limited and this can lead to veterans falling through the cracks and staying on the streets for weeks, months or years.
As we work to end veteran homelessness in Tulsa, here’s what we’re facing:
During the annual point-in-time count of people living on the streets and in shelters, 108 veterans were counted among those experiencing homelessness on the night of January 28, 2016. This is the lowest number of veterans counted in the past five years. Why is that? The 23 partner agencies of A Way Home for Tulsa helped more than three times that number achieve housing — 298 veterans — in 2015 alone.
I believe it is possible that Tulsa will meet the Zero:
2016 goal to end veteran homelessness by the end of this year. It’s all a matter of not just momentarily ending veteran homelessness, but to sustain Tulsa’s ability to have as many apartment units available as there are veterans in need of housing. This is what’s called “functional zero.”
As we continue our efforts to end veteran homelessness, A Way Home for Tulsa maintains a “by-name list,” so we know these veterans’ names, where they are living and what their unique needs are so we can walk alongside them as they make the journey from the streets and into housing.
The question I hear a lot is, “OK, Greg, so what’s it going to take to end veteran homelessness in Tulsa by the end of the year?”
My answer is that if we can help approximately 30 veterans a month achieve housing, we can end veteran homelessness by the end of the year.
It goes back to the community’s combined efforts to help outreach, engage and reintegrate veterans as quickly as possible at the highest number every single month.
A key in this effort is ensuring the by-name list is as accurate and up-to-date as possible, and that we maintain a policy for removing people from the list who haven’t been seen in the area in a significant amount of time.
Overall, we need to house as many veterans in 2016 as we did last year — 298 — and it needs to be an ongoing effort because it’s not just about how many you’ve housed, it’s about how many people you keep housing on an ongoing basis. Otherwise, even if we end veteran homelessness momentarily, we won’t be able to stay there.