Saturday, 27 June 2015 00:00

Cutting red tape to find housing for homeless veterans

Written by Roger Chesley |

It's fascinating what a little coordination - and a lot of communication - can do in battling homelessness among veterans.

That's what government officials and social service workers told me Friday, following Gov. Terry McAuliffe's announcement that 743 homeless vets in Virginia had gained housing since October. Last year, McAuliffe embarked on an audacious plan to end veteran homelessness in the commonwealth by the end of 2015.

We'll never truly reach that mark - the number of homeless people isn't static. But the effort is worth it, especially for those men and women who served in the military.

Of the total, 155 vets were housed from October through May in South Hampton Roads, said Claudia Gooch, vice president for community planning and development at The Planning Council.

The governor's pledge followed first lady Michelle Obama's launch last summer of a "Mayors Challenge to End Veteran Homelessness." The state has led meetings of stakeholders in Richmond, bringing them to the table to share best practices and to steer clear of pitfalls.

One success was breaking through the "silos" of funding and red tape that localities and agencies had erected, Carol Berg told me. She's with the state Department of Veterans Services and is the Hampton Roads regional director for the Virginia Wounded Warrior Program.

For example, maybe a vet who stays in Norfolk can't find housing there, but a federal housing voucher for vets might be available in Hampton.

And this will make fiscal conservatives happy: More money hasn't been a major strategy. Breaking barriers; coordinating among federal, state and local partners; and using existing resources have played a bigger role.

I wondered, wouldn't most vets who gained housing under this initiative have gotten shelter eventually? Not necessarily, and definitely not as quickly.

The effort targets the "most vulnerable" - people who are chronically homeless, with physical and mental disabilities, and who may battle substance abuse. Berg said the idea is to first identify, assist and house them. Then offer services, including counseling and treatment.

The Planning Council and STOP Organization are among the agencies working on the ground. I traveled Friday to STOP offices in Norfolk to interview a formerly homeless vet.

DeLaine Stieff served in the Navy in the 1980s. The 53-year-old Detroit native has lived in Virginia since 1991.

The past year has been an emotional and physical trial. Stieff got divorced and moved out of the Chesapeake home she'd shared with her husband.

In early November, Stieff decided to drive back to Detroit to visit her ailing mother. But she had a serious car crash in the South Hill area. Her injuries included a punctured lung, crushed liver and trauma to her right leg. Doctors initially feared they might have to amputate.

After several weeks, she was discharged, Stieff said.

She returned to Detroit during the winter to finally see her mother. They spent several weeks together before her mother died in late March.

Stieff returned to Hampton Roads by mid-April but by then had lost her longtime job as a customer support analyst at Verizon. Meanwhile, she said, some overnight shelters wouldn't let her in because of the leg injury.

With no permanent home, she stayed where she could - in libraries during the day, and in her vehicle, on church steps and in a park at night, Stieff said, dabbing her eyes with tissues.

Finally, a veteran who worked at the United Way directed her to STOP. That's where she met Gladys Baker and Charnitta Waters, who assist homeless veterans.

They helped Stieff find a one-bedroom apartment off Little Creek Road. STOP also used a federal program that aids vets. The local agency provided help with the security deposit, rental bill and an old utility bill.

"They are angels," Stieff said of STOP.

It's the type of story that proves the value of the homeless initiative. It saves the people who safeguarded the rest of us.

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