Clayton McGee, 58, is a Vietnam War veteran who has struggled with drug addiction and homelessness. McGee now helps homeless vets at the Southeast Veterans Center in D.C.
Clayton McGee laughed.
“This here is the glamorous living room. And this is the dining room,” he said. McGee, 58, gestured at a hand-me-down sofa and red dining chairs, both within arm’s reach.
McGee’s long journey to this two-room basement apartment used to be the typical story of how a homeless veteran got off the streets.
After returning from the Vietnam War, he sold and used drugs in Anacostia, one of the poorest parts of Washington. Decades of homelessness, illness, unsuccessful treatment programs and nights in shelters followed.
McGee eventually sought help from a local transitional center for veterans. Through the center, he got connected to HUD-VASH, a joint program of the departments of Housing and Urban Development and Veterans Affairs, which provides permanent homes to chronically homeless vets. The VA certified his eligibility in 2009 after he had gotten clean and found work.
With roughly 67,000 vets lacking housing, however, it’s clear that HUD-VASH had to step up its pace to meet President Barack Obama’s promise of ending homelessness among veterans by 2015. The White House has made it a high-priority performance goal, expecting the agencies to accomplish it without additional resources or legislation. Officials say they’re on track because of a revolutionary change in how they approach the problem.
The shift began with research 10 years ago that made the case for housing above other services for the homeless.
“It makes good common sense,” said Vince Kane, director of the VA’s National Center on Homelessness among Veterans. “You don’t end homelessness without housing. You can’t treat away homelessness.”
Now, “as we find someone living on the streets for many years, we move them into an apartment and then provide services,” said Mark Johnston, deputy assistant secretary for persons with special needs at HUD.
There’s an 84-percent likelihood that a chronically homeless person who gets permanent housing and case management services will still be in their home one year later, he said.
For governments stretched thin, however, there was a more compelling motive. The University of Pennsylvania found that shelters, jails and emergency health care added up to $40,000 annually for the average homeless person. The HUD-VASH combination of housing and case management for the same person costs up to $20,000.
Realizing that was “a big a-ha moment,” said Johnston. “As a result, we started targeting resources on the most needy. And if we can save money by housing those persons first, we’ll have money for other people too.”
Getting to zero
But that realization alone wasn’t enough to change the status quo. HUD-VASH began in 1992 as a small-scale program. It got a considerable boost in 2008, when it received $75 million from Congress amid concerns about troops returning home to an uncertain economy.
But even with political and financial support, red tape presented challenges. Veterans obtain HUD-VASH housing through a complicated web of local partners who process paperwork, issue HUD housing vouchers and track eligible properties.
Many homeless vets have waited as long as a year to use a housing voucher.
“I think a lot of us in government get caught up in the process. We don’t step back and think, ‘Does it make sense and can we do it more efficiently?'” said Johnston.
Until then, HUD had focused on enforcing housing regulations rather than analyzing its processes. But with leaders at both agencies demanding data on progress through regular meetings, staff at all levels began to rethink how they did things.
In turn, they have forced changes on the local governments and nonprofits that they fund.
Rather than have groups compete for funding, HUD began to require communities to submit a single application identifying their problems and priorities. The new method encourages cooperation and organization, Johnston said.
Federal officials have held “boot camps” with local partners and homeless veterans to examine specific problems.
He said such events have helped dispel “myths and untruths” about federal housing regulations and pinpoint bottlenecks.
Johnston said a recent boot camp in New York City identified 72 different steps in the process, which took 285 days. They found that a local agency has taken a month to scan documents. That type of behavior hurts the city’s chances for grant money, said Johnston.
“If you are slow in leasing up, we will not give you as many vouchers as you would otherwise deserve,” he said. “It provides a great incentive for them to lease up in a much more efficient way.”
The number of homeless vets dropped by 12 percent between 2010 and 2011, according to an annual census of the homeless conducted every January. This year’s census may show the program is ahead of pace, officials said.
But getting to zero in three years will be tough. Johnston said HUD-VASH is looking at “an essentially flat budget” for the first time in years. As the program continues, its mission is growing more challenging. With those vets who are relatively easier to help already in housing, the most difficult cases remain.
In addition, Kane worried about newer vets returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, of which 12 percent are unemployed, which is three points higher than the national average.
“If we’re not vigilant and not pushing preventative services, some of them could fall into homelessness,” he said. “Number-wise, we look great but when we see a veteran on the street, we know that our mission isn’t complete.”
While HUD-VASH provides permanent housing, most vets stay two to three years. The VA is collecting data on the 3,000 veterans who have left the program. Preliminary findings show most “move on for positive reasons,” said Kane. “Others relapsed, but that number is fairly low.”
In Washington, Clayton McGee now works as a case manager at the transitional center for veterans where he used to live.
After two years in his apartment, he’s ready to move on again. Because HUD-VASH pays the majority of his rent, he has been able to build a nest egg with his $28,000 salary.
“Through the HUD-VASH program, I’ve grown a lot so I’m able to step out on faith now,” he said. “I should be able to get myself a nice little house somewhere.”
He recently got married and plans to look for a place big enough to share with his wife. When he gives up his apartment, his housing voucher will return to a pool reserved for veterans.