Three Tips for Ending Veteran Homelessness in a Balance of State CoC

This post is authored by Hannah Maharrey, Director of the Mississippi Balance of State Continuum of Care

This year, the Mississippi Balance of State Continuum of Care (CoC) was given the designation of achieving an “Effective End to Veteran Homelessness” from the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness (USICH). The designation was a culmination of years of effort by the homeless service providers that serve the rural areas of Mississippi

The nation’s progress on veteran homelessness is well documented. To date, 78 communities and 3 states have achieved USICH’s designation. But doing so in a rural Balance of State comes with its own set of challenges. This post includes suggestions to consider when creating a comprehensive approach to end veteran homelessness within a Balance of State CoC. You may find that they also apply to many larger urban CoCs.

Getting Started: Be Realistic About Your Challenges

I always say that “If Mississippi can do it, anyone can.”

I am not being overly critical of our state. I’m being realistic to the additional obstacles faced by our homeless community, and our homeless service providers.

The Mississippi Balance of State CoC covers 71 rural counties. It includes the low-country river areas of the Delta and Southwest, to the hill country and pine trees of the Northeast and Pinebelt. This is a substantial and geographically diverse coverage area; service providers can be located hundreds of miles from one another and from their clients.

Here are three tips to overcoming those challenges.

Tip 1: Build a Strong Network

CoCs need a strong network of service providers — regardless of distance or location.

The MS Balance of State CoC created a coordinated entry system specific to our veterans that operates within (but unique from) our larger coordinated entry system. We hold a bi-monthly coordinated entry call with our homeless veteran service providers. These agencies include the Department of Veterans’ Affairs (VA), Supportive Services for Veteran Families (SSVF) grantees, the Homeless Management Information System (HMIS) lead agency, and street outreach teams.

Our balance of state is served by two VA offices, with one located in Memphis, TN and another in Jackson, MS. It was crucial to have both these VAs involved in this process in order to properly service our coverage area.

These bi-weekly conference calls are hosted via an online video conferencing system. The calls enhance the critically important communication that this work demands. They also provide accountability for our agencies.

A veteran by-name-list was created specifically for this group and each veteran listed is discussed during every call. This ensures that our homeless veterans are identified and offered services on a consistent basis. Additional stakeholders that are involved in our veterans coordinated entry system are our regional housing authorities, veteran service organizations, veteran civic groups or clubs, and police department liaisons.

Tip 2: Divide and Conquer Your Regions

Outreach teams are the foundation of an effective coordinated entry system. Within our Balance of State we have 5 regional outreach teams that are comprised of agencies and community partners that operate within that specific region.

Creating a locally based outreach team essentially means a CoC is building their by-name-list locally. This focus helps build trust between clients, outreach teams, and service providers.

Tip 3: Respect Local Culture

The culture within a specific community or region is specific to that district. For example, Mississippi’s Delta and Northeast regions are only separated by about 175 miles, but they could not be more different.

For example, the Delta experiences some of the highest poverty levels in the United States. This is exemplified in the housing issues that our outreach teams have documented: there are a significant number of abandoned and derelict properties in the Delta, and this can create two big challenges on the outreach team.

  1. The homeless community can quickly move from one rough-sleeping situation to another, which results in our outreach team losing the small amount of regularity that is often found in other communities with fixed encampments.
  2. Although these properties are obviously not meant for habitation, many of the individuals our outreach teams have encountered do not personally identify as being homeless. They would consider themselves housed, even without utilities, a lease, walls, or even a roof. Reaching and helping these individuals demands a consistent sensitivity to that culture.

Applying What We’ve Learned From Vets

Our CoC’s self-determined goal for 2020 is to end chronic homelessness within our balance of state.

As we finalize our strategies for this goal, it’s clear that the best practices we cultivated during our work to end veteran homelessness will inform – and enhance – our efforts to end chronic homelessness.