By Jaclyn Harris and Sarah Crowder, The Talon News
It only takes one “yes” to create a world of change for a community. A yes to donate, a yes to seeing a fellow human being where they’re at, a yes to banding together to solve a problem.
For Denton, that “yes” came when Mayor Chris Watts announced his plan to participate in the nationwide pledge to end veteran homelessness on Oct. 26, 2018. A year since its announcement, Denton’s campaign to resolve this issue by 2020 has made strides toward ending the country’s battle with veteran homelessness.
“I think the implication on a broader scale is not so much that we approach it from a national perspective, even though it’s a national program,” Watts said. “But it’s saying ‘hey, if we get individual communities in the individual regions to make this commitment on a local level then this issue will be solved.’”
The Mayor’s Challenge to End Veteran Homelessness began as a nationwide initiative in 2014 and, according to the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs, “calls on cities, counties and states to commit to ending and preventing homelessness among Veterans in their communities.”
“An end to veteran homelessness means that the community has the capacity to identify and engage [individuals] at risk of and experiencing homelessness,” Courtney Cross, Director of Mental Health and Housing Initiative at United Way, said. “[We have the capacity] to intervene and prevent a loss of housing, and provide immediate access to shelter and crisis services once homelessness occurs, and to connect veterans to other housing assistance services.”
The way to sign up for the initiative was in the form of an online pledge where mayors send an email to an address available on the mayor’s challenge website to join.
“Since I was elected in 2014, we’ve been working with various veteran organizations in Denton and Denton County to really address the issue of veteran homelessness,” Watts said. “The reason we [joined the initiative] was to join a national coalition to have a goal of ending veteran homelessness by 2020.”
Currently, 78 communities and three states have ended veteran homelessness, and four communities have ended both chronic and veteran homelessness. Four communities in Texas—Abilene, Austin, San Antonio, and Houston—have already ended veteran homelessness in their cities. Denton is looking to add another accomplishment to this list by bringing the cause to a local field.
“We’re working on trying to fill the gap,” Watts said. “We’re still trying to develop housing opportunities and options for those veterans who are homeless. It’s a long view goal and I believe that we will be able to achieve it because I believe it is in the community to achieve it.”
The Local Level
A movement as a whole cannot function without its moving parts. Each mayor has to pledge to be a part of something bigger than themselves in order to create change across the nation. When Denton became part of the initiative, they pledged to do just that.
“Even though it’s a national initiative implemented by a national organization, that organization is made up of our cities,” Watts said. “So they are asking ‘will you join our initiative to end veteran homelessness as a coalition?’” The cities and mayors still have to be involved and implement that program on a local level to be involved for each individual community.”
As of Aug. 31, 2018, there were 49 homeless veterans in Denton County, according to the United Way of Denton. As the methods of the initiative took effect, however, the number began to plummet. It involves various organizations, city and county officials who have banded together to fight this uphill battle.
“What we’re trying to do is develop the correct programs and initiatives where we can have an accurate count of the homeless veterans in our community,” Watts said. “[We want to figure out] how to create an initiative and organized structured program where we can end veteran homelessness by 2020 by working with the various nonprofit groups in the city of Denton and Denton county.”
Immediately following Mayor Watts’s announcement that Denton would join this initiative, organizations and individuals under the City of Denton began taking on extra roles and projects that would help further the cause.
Danielle Shaw, a community manager for the City of Denton, helps to coordinate the efforts of the movement within the local government.
“Within my role, we provide support for families or individuals who are lower income,” Shaw said. “Through the support, we provide grants to nonprofit agencies to serve a variety of issues including access to high quality childcare, support for seniors, and folks with disabilities, grants for people who need mental health care and support. One of those initiatives specifically that we offer support for is homelessness.”
There are also numerous organizations outside of the city that are involved in the effort. The United Way of Denton County, a non-profit organization, joined together with the City of Denton to create the Denton County Homelessness Leadership Team. This team is, according to the United Way of Denton’s website, a “public-private partnership to lead collective impact initiatives addressing homelessness across our community”
The United Way also provides a data dashboard that allows the public to access the figures collected on veteran homelessness.
“We have a data dashboard that is updated monthly that tracks everyone who is experiencing homelessness who has been entered into our housing priority list,” Shaw said. “[Through] the system, we know what their housing need is and we know if they’re a part of a special population like veterans.”
This data is gathered through a program called a homelessness management information system (HMIS).
“[HMIS] is a program through the federal government that will allow us social service agencies to talk to homeless people and also homeless veterans if they input their data,” Watts said. “We can flag them, and we have a list of people who are homeless and veterans and it helps us to more readily identify them so we can meet their needs.”
Aside from creating and continually updating the HMIS, the United Way is also involved in providing rental assistance and housing support, including a new position created especially for the veteran homelessness initiative.
“We have veterans right here in our city that are homeless, so we have these programs and the tech to identify them,” Watts said. “We now have a housing navigator, which is a position in United Way which has been hired in the last two months whose sole responsibility is to find and connect homeless people with housing.”
While the United Way and Veteran’s Center provides much in terms of managing the movement, there are organizations that work more directly with the veterans who need their basic needs met, such as immediate shelter.
“We have a number of agencies that participate in our homelessness initiative,” Shaw said. “All of our shelters, the community outreach center in Denton, and the Salvation Army in Denton. We also have all of our service providers that provide housing systems in Denton County, [such as] Giving Hope Inc. A lot of folks are involved in this effort.”
Private landlords can also join the initiative by allowing veterans to rent their properties, but this does not come free of obstacles.
“A good majority of the folks who come through these non-profit agencies in Denton County have other housing barriers,” Cross said. “An arrest history or a criminal history may actually make them a liability for landlords or property managers to rent to them. So what’s actually going to be one of the biggest obstacles is training the community on how to effectively collaborate with [individuals.]”
The solution, according to Cross, comes in the form of the community adapting to these changes together.
“It’s really a matter of the community flexing its muscles in a way that it’s never done before,” she said. “We have a lot of resources in the community. When you have coordination in identifying and engaging veterans, and prevention services, and some of those support services, you’re going to significantly decrease the number of folks who are in that crisis mode.”
In order to help veterans pay for housing, the housing authority distributes what is known as a HUD-VASH voucher. These vouchers combine housing services with case management and other services, such as mental health, financial, and educational services. The vouchers, along with housing assistance from private landowners allows veterans to expand their housing options beyond shelters and shared living spaces.
“Over the last four years, we’ve been able to get grants for housing and urban development from the federal government of 20 VASH vouchers,” Watts said. “We have also been working with private landlords to locate various units when we identify a homeless veteran that would allow them to have a place to live. We’ve done quite a bit to modernize the system and make a collaborative process among nonprofits to work towards this end goal.”
The HMIS also helps those involved in the movement to determine which veterans are eligible to receive a HUD-VASH voucher, allowing for members of the initiative to quickly and efficiently identify candidates.
“As a community here in Denton County, we were able to use data from our local database that we’ve gathered through coordinated entry to identify veterans experiencing homelessness that would really benefit from a HUD-VASH voucher,” Cross said. “So we sat down at the Veteran’s Association and housing authority and identified potential candidates and then contact VASH candidates and get them housing.”
A movement this large does not come without an equally grand amount of funding. However, while the pledge to join the initiative is nationally based, the majority of the aid needed to run the programs is limited to the state or local level.
“The veteran’s administration is a part of this, so it might mean that we have limitations on our access to partners,” Shaw said. “But because this is a local initiative and there’s no direct funding currently for the initiative that’s specific to it, meaning there’s no federal funding that says we’re going to do this project with it, the funding is all diversified.”
Those involved in the movement are not letting this obstacle come between them and change, instead they turn to donors through what is known as a “barriers fund.” This fund, managed by the United Way, provides a way for individuals and businesses to donate directly to the cause. The services the barriers fund provide include, but are not limited to, providing direct financial assistance to homes and supporting landlord engagement.
“If [veterans] need assistance with a car repair so they can get to their jobs and continue to save up to get out of shelter, or if they need help with a certification course so they can increase their income and continue to support their families and maintain their housing, [this fund can help with that,]” Cross said.
Those who wish to donate to the barriers fund can do so on the United Way’s website and pledge anywhere between $25 and $500 through their online entry system.
“The dollars from the barrier fund go right back out into the community and really go a long way in making an impact,” Cross said. “Even small donations can help with that.”
The money provided by the barriers fund, while helpful in providing these veterans with their needs, serves as a stepping stone to larger government funds. Supportive Services for Veteran Families (SSVF) funding would mean a world of difference for the initiative.
“We are working towards identifying sources of grant funding that could support the Homelessness Barriers Fund to help with some of this,” Cross said. “The United Way, as part of this initiative, is going to apply for some. That would allow us to hire a case manager and have funding to provide rapid re-housing services. So funding for veterans who have lost their housing.”
In order to receive these services, veterans must take it upon themselves to seek out assistance from their community. Stigma surrounding mental health in veterans can create obstacles when it comes to seeking help.
“No one’s homelessness experience is the same as the next,” Cross said. “But I think with veterans what we’ve been seeing a lot more, especially with our chronic homeless veteran population, is really the PTS and the trauma they have experienced in the service. We’re seeing higher rates of PTS and with our more recent tours and younger veteran population, we’re seeing higher rates of suicide. So all those factors together can lead to substance abuse as a coping mechanism.”
Veterans are also, according to Cross, statistically less likely to present as a veteran while homeless.
“Those two things together can really keep someone from accessing services in a time that may be crucial for them,” Cross said. “This can lead—for lack of a better term—to them spiraling a little bit more quickly and finding themselves in a housing crisis without a real way to get out.”
Since Watts announced Denton’s involvement in the initiative, the number of homeless veterans in Denton County has fallen to 34 as of Oct. 31, 2019. As the year grows closer and closer to their 2020 deadline, the race to end veteran homelessness is far from over, and those involved in the program are working towards implementing new programs such as the SSVF funding that would expand the resources available to the initiative.
“We’re trying to get creative in ways to increase access to services locally in a way that’s sustainable,” Cross said. “Our hope is that eventually we can get it off the ground and pass it off to a more appropriate organization who can then maintain direct service on a program like that for an extended period of time. In the meantime, [we are] really going after those budding sources that will build up our barriers fund and allow us to keep doing what we’re doing.”
The Human Side of the Initiative
Beyond numbers and funds, the real driving force behind the initiative is people. Veterans and those who show up for them day after day are the reason for the change. Kevin Sample, a formerly homeless 50-year-old veteran with eight years of service behind him, preaches this continuously.
“To end veteran homelessness, you have to pour into people,” Sample said. “You have to cut through the red tape. I just want to be a spark for someone to know that veterans matter, homeless people matter.”
Sample was homeless for nearly a year after having a falling out with his wife due to his PTSD issues subsequent to his service. While on the street his motto became “I only need one yes, one person who would give me a yes.”
“From the moment that I did that, up until February of this year, it took me exactly 342 days to find a yes,” Sample said. “[Eventually] I said ‘No, I’m better than this,’ and so every day that pushed me harder and harder.”
During his stint of homelessness, Sample would walk the streets every day, sometimes as far as Lewisville, and research in the public library, searching for an opportunity.
“There has to be something that makes you say you’re better than this situation,” Sample said. “And that’s the way I looked at it, I was better than this situation. And from that point on, I worked. To get told no 99 times and finally get a yes, that means the world. To be able to say I don’t have to go sit out in front of a shelter for two hours to make sure I have a bed when it’s 32 degrees outside. But the work really starts once you get a place, you have to maintain it, it forces you to grow up, it causes you to look back at your life and realize that maybe I was my biggest problem.”
Through the Salvation Army, Giving Hope Inc., and other organizations the city partners with, Sample was able to work himself back to a place of stability.
“When I first started working, I first got my place, I wasn’t used to paying rent,” Sample said. “But, James Thompson helped me with that. He said ‘Okay Kevin, once you start working, you need to get you a budget. Go over your budget, what do you need? You just have to start that.’ And I stuck to that. So a year ago I was walking, today I’m driving, and I’m not struggling with anything. I pay my own rent now and I do everything.”
Sample was able to start a career at Habitat for Humanity, a nonprofit housing organization, with the help of the veterans’ center and John Montoya. Sample now sits on the Homeless Leadership team, Homeless Coalition, and the Safety Council Committee.
“Someone took a chance on me,” Sample said. “Someone just heard and offered me a job and I’ve been able to touch many people’s lives working there.”
Sample then took it upon himself to become a spearhead for the movement, participating, speaking, telling his story because regardless of discharge, “there’s no reason why veterans should be homeless.”
“To change, why not be change?” Sample said. “They wanna look at how to treat someone, why can’t Denton be the one do it? And everybody else follow whatever we put in place.”
One of the most important things in fighting veteran homelessness is going step by step. Many veterans struggle with PTSD and anxiety issues and have trouble readjusting after living on the street. Having medical assistance, counseling, financial advice and aid is crucial to this endeavor.
“If you’re homeless for six months, you’re a year behind,” Sample said. “So it’s going to take more than 90 days for you to get on your feet. They may have a program to get you in, but you have to slowly bring somebody around to where they’re functional again. Some people may take three months, some people may take 12, but you have to be there.”
Sample is an example of what can be achieved with the help of these kinds of people and organizations, stepping up and showing up.
“That’s why I’m so grateful for the vet’s center because it’s right here in town,” Sample said. “You don’t need an appointment, you just walk in. A year ago today, I was homeless. I almost jumped in front of a train because I was hurting that bad and here I am today, someone wanted to hear my story.”
Sample implores people to “get all the way involved,” and make sure that community members continue to fight for change.
“Everything going on in the world today is a hot topic for a week,” Sample said. “And then everybody lets it go back to the same. Never let it go back to the same. Treat [people as if they were] your mother, your sister, your brother, your immediate family. That’s what you fight for. That’s what activism is.”