Federal money helps house Columbia’s homeless veteran population

Thursday, July 17, 2008 | 9:43 p.m. CDT; updated 3:57 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

COLUMBIA — New beginnings for Columbia’s homeless veteran population have arrived with a set of brand new door keys.

For the first time, homeless veterans can obtain permanent housing in Columbia through a supportive housing voucher program that incorporates intensive case management to reintegrate veterans into the mainstream of society.

The housing initiative in Columbia is part of the federal government’s expansion of the Housing and Urban Development-Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing voucher program, which began with 1,800 vouchers in 1992.

Denise Heet, homeless veterans’ coordinator for the Harry S. Truman Memorial Veterans Hospital, said the expansion of the program approved in 2007 by President Bush allocated $75 million for 10,000 vouchers across the country for 2008. Thirty-five of those vouchers are available for veterans in Columbia.

“This is the first permanent housing program for homeless vets in Columbia,” Heet said. “Before, we used emergency shelters and transitional housing in Columbia. This year, so far, we have served 67 homeless veterans.”

In January, the Missouri Association for Social Welfare estimated that there were 140 homeless veterans sheltered in Boone County. This month, the Missouri Housing Trust Fund counted an estimated 40 unsheltered homeless vets in Columbia, but homeless veteran coordinators think many more veterans are unaccounted for.

Vouchers that are distributed through local Veterans Affairs offices across the country are able to provide data on their homeless veteran population and show a substantial need for permanent housing.

Heet said voluntary surveys conducted by Columbia’s homeless veteran program have shown that permanent housing is the top concern among homeless and formerly homeless veterans.

Along with the need for housing, some veterans struggle to find the mental health resources needed to help them address problems such as substance abuse.

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that 46 percent of homeless veterans suffer mental illness and 70 percent suffer from alcohol addiction or other drug problems..

Sarah Froese, a veterans housing coordinator and a licensed social worker, cited the voucher program’s emphasis on intensive case management as an important part of solving homelessness for veterans and providing a holistc approach to their needs.

“Intensive case management, they need that piece in order to be succesful,” Froese said. “We create a treatment plan that meets their individual needs — housing, employment, socialization. Some are pretty basic, and some are pretty complex.”

Clients who receive vouchers agree to a behavioral contract that requires them to meet with case workers once a week and attend group meetings once a month. They are also required to spend 20 hours a week working, volunteering or attending classes.

The program has already placed six veterans in apartments across Columbia and is looking to place 29 more by October.

“This program is growing,” Froese said.

She added that eight more individuals had been approved for vouchers and would be moved into residences in the next week.

Froese expects the program will receive the same number of vouchers next fiscal year, but hopes to receive more.

“It’s a humbling experience to witness someone acutally get those keys and have a place when they haven’t had one in a long time,” Froese said.

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