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Ending Veteran Homelessness on the Mississippi Gulf Coast

Publications  |  November 8, 2018

In 2014, veteran homelessness in Mississippi’s Gulfport/Gulf Coast Regional Continuum of Care (CoC) seemed intractable. Affording the basics in the CoC’s six counties (Harrison, Hancock, Jackson, George, Stone, and Pearl River) continues to be a challenge for many. According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, there is no county in the country where a full-time minimum-wage worker can afford fair market rent for a one-bedroom apartment. Yet in the face of these challenges, by the end of 2015, the area achieved “functional zero” in veteran homelessness — meaning that the community never has more veterans experiencing homelessness than it has proven it can house in an average month.

Through a partnership among local non-profits, government agencies, and the Gulf Coast Veterans Health Care System (the local Veterans Affairs Medical Center, or VAMC), the region saw veteran homelessness plummet from 59 veterans in the January 2015 point-in-time (PIT) count to 13 in the 2016 PIT count. (Of the 13 veterans experiencing homelessness, three recently moved to the area, two were newly experiencing homelessness, and the remaining were on a by-name list gathered and shared among community partners.) In total, community partners placed 276 veterans experiencing homelessness into housing in 2015.

The Process in a First-Time Collaboration

This multi-county effort required a close partnership among the CoC, VAMC, and providers — a first in the region. In preparation for the 2015 PIT count, the CoC conducted a provider training series on the Vulnerability Index-Service Prioritization Decision Assistance Tool (VI-SPDAT) triage assessment. Gaining providers’ buy-in for the VI-SPDAT resulted in an 84 percent success rate in reaching people experiencing homelessness.

After conducting the count and dividing it into subpopulations, the CoC, VAMC, and Supportive Services for Veteran Families (SSVF) programs began to track the number of veterans entering the homelessness system in a by-name list. Supported by weekly Homeless Management Information System (HMIS) reviews, the community ensured an accurate count of veterans experiencing homelessness and an offer of assistance for each veteran as quickly as possible.

Tracking this in-flow of veterans in the system and conducting a homeless needs assessment revealed the demand for resources and full scope of veteran homelessness. Armed with this information, collaboration partners—SSVF providers, the CoC, and the VAMC—created a community plan for ending veteran homelessness. The needs assessment showed that at least 270 veterans would require housing. The collaboration determined that a combination of several housing options would address this need: U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development-VA Supportive Housing (HUD-VASH) vouchers for permanent supportive housing, rapid re-housing (RRH) through SSVF and HUD’s Emergency Solutions Grant program, and CoC resources (as a secondary resource).

An Effective PartnershipThe VAMC, the CoC, SSVF ProvidersMayorsand Landlords

Each partner in the collaboration tackled what each did best: SSVF providers and the VAMC provided the veteran-specific housing and social services. The CoC lead, Open Doors Homeless Coalition, was the planner and convener — the glue that held the partnership together.

Weekly (followed by monthly) meetings ensured that collaboration partners adhered to the timeline and adapted services and housing placements to veterans’ evolving needs. Using a coordinated entry system, monthly case conferencing (supplemented by information-sharing between meetings), a Housing First approach, and wraparound services, the team ultimately housed 276 veterans and their families in 2015 and reduced the number of literally homeless veterans to 13 at that time.

The strong partnership with the Gulf Coast Veterans Health Care System (the VAMC) and the Biloxi and Gulfport mayors in the Mayors Challenge to End Veteran Homelessness attracted the support of the wider community — including landlords. Assessing community resources highlighted the importance of the region’s VAMC as one of the premier sites for treating post-traumatic stress disorder and in-patient substance abuse and mental illness. Any veteran experiencing homelessness could go there for services to address those issues. Landlords were receptive to joining the effort, helping to ensure that veterans exiting homelessness had a safe place to go. In pulling together the VAMC, mayors, SSVF providers, and landlords, the Gulfport/Gulf Coast CoC achieved the functional end of veteran homelessness.

Addressing the Challenges of Rural Homelessness

The rural counties in this CoC confronted unique challenges whose solutions inform homelessness policy and practices nationwide. Implementing RRH and scattered-site housing in rural areas translates into high travel costs amid widely dispersed services. Providers rose to the challenge — arranging appropriate transportation for veterans attending housing and social service appointments across rural counties. Continuing to build relationships with landlords ensures that the CoC can meet the housing needs of veterans in rural areas.

ENDING VETERANS HOMELESSNESS—AN ONGOING SYSTEM-WIDE EFFORT

Maintaining an end to veteran homelessness in the Gulfport/Gulf Coast CoC requires the continued commitment of every member of this formerly unique—now commonplace—partnership of the VAMC, SSVF providers, the CoC lead, housing providers, mayors, landlords, and other community partners. They achieved authentic system reform — guaranteeing a path to housing for every veteran experiencing homelessness.

Mary Simons, Executive Director of the Open Doors Homeless Coalition, described their experiences since reaching functional zero:

We’ve been able to sustain [functional zero] for two years because the partnerships have stayed strong and the resources have stayed intact. At the beginning of our effort, we didn’t necessarily have everything in HMIS, but in 2016 we were able to get the technology to match so that we would capture program- and client-specific information to ensure that [our programs] could provide the best services. Continuing this work has allowed us to maintain an end to veteran homelessness in our area.

The Gulfport/Gulf Coast CoC’s success on veteran homelessness has inspired action on other fronts — the CoC embarked on a 100-Day Challenge on Youth Homelessness in November 2017. The region’s achievement in effectively ending veteran homelessness is a testament to the commitment of multiple local partners — and a model for ending homelessness nationwide in rural communities and cities alike.

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