“No strings attached, just, you know, ‘we want you off the street’ kind of housing, that’s great… Given my situation, where I’m able and want to work, that’s the kind of stuff that really helps out, because once you have a place to live, you can store your things, take a shower, cook your food, and you can start to live life like a regular human being again.” – Daniel Martin, 29, homeless veteran in San Diego, in a September 2014 ‘All Things Considered’ NPR broadcast.
Daniel’s comments are pretty close to the mark for advocates of the Housing First method of “solving” homelessness. The philosophy is centered on stabilizing the world of the homeless individual or family by getting them into their own apartment, then working with them through case management to address the issues that landed them on the street in the first place. It’s this method of social service that’s driving the VA’s success in reducing homelessness among veterans by at least 33% since 2010, when they, along with HUD, announced their goal to end veteran homelessness by the close of 2015.
67% in less than 12 months may seem like a long way to travel, but the push has been gaining momentum in the last year, especially after Michelle Obama joined the effort in June 2014 and introduced the Mayors Challenge to End Veteran Homelessness, a follow-up to the VA’s 25 Cities Initiative, which launched in March 2014. Our founder, Ken Leslie, was in the room at the invitation of the White House when the First Lady made the call to action. You can read about his visit here. Since then, three large U.S. cities have announced success in ending chronic veteran homelessness: Phoenix, AZ; Salt Lake City, UT; New Orleans, LA. That’s two out of the originally listed 25 cities which have accomplished this goal in less than a year.
As for Veterans Mater, we have operations in five out of the 25 cities — Boston, Detroit, Houston, Seattle, and Washington, D.C. — as well as several other areas. Of the currently 518 veterans/veteran families for whom we’ve provided the final step that gets them over the threshold into their home, we only get to hear a tiny fraction of the stories of success, joy and new hope. We respect the confidentiality of the veterans we serve, so we rely on the VA’s social workers (VASH managers) to tell us about the life transformation that happens for these men, women and children when they finally have a place to call home. Every single story makes us cry.
There’s a common thread to these stories: relief, gratitude, happy shock, enthusiasm, hope. It becomes evident over and over again that a key to an apartment unlocks so much more than a door; it also unlocks our veterans from the stress of day-to-day survival, the rejection of society, the disappointment in programs that claim to help but don’t (or, at least not fast enough), and the hopelessness of being stuck in a rut. These brave but beleaguered souls, who have fought and sacrificed for our freedom, now come into a freedom of their own when they can settle into one place; one safe, warm, and permanent spot in which they belong. They are freed to then move into new places in their personal progress, with the help of professional case managers dedicated to ensuring their success. And it’s a high rate of success, too: 91% of the veterans housed this way maintain their housing.
Veterans aren’t the only beneficiaries of the Housing First method of reducing homelessness. Extensive studies on Housing First show how this approach saves communities thousands of dollars per homeless participant since stable housing prevents strains on commonly-used infrastructures and services like jails, shelters, ambulance rides, police time, and emergency room visits. While the philosophy is a relatively recent adoption by governments and social services, the ideology behind it could realistically date back to 1943, when psychologist Abraham Maslow introduced his hierarchy of needs in Psychological Review. His “Theory of Human Motivation” detailed the levels of a pyramid-shaped graph of human development, showing how a person builds on different types of needs to move through individual growth. The most basic needs, what Maslow termed as ‘Physiological’, make up the bottom. These needs have to be met before a personal can most successfully move toward the pinnacle of the hierarchy: Self-Actualization, or the person’s full potential. So, what does a person need at the very outset? Food, water, air, clothing… and shelter. And the next levels builds from there, focused on personal, financial, and physical safety. Only a home can truly provide the shelter and safety an individual or family need to continue to move toward autonomy.
What illustrates the real success of this approach and our involvement in housing these veterans is one of those stories we mentioned:
“… [one] of the most recent referrals is a young man who had been living in his van for almost two years. He refused to go to shelters because he felt it would lead to a relapse in his recovery and wanted to maintain his independence. He moved into his house last week and showed it to me yesterday. The pride in his eyes and the excitement in his voice as he told me what his future plans were made it all worthwhile. He went from being frustrated, angry and hopeless to a man with a future again. You helped to make this possible. Thank you.”
— Miguel Ortega, VASH Manager