What does it mean that Connecticut has ended veteran homelessness?

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy recently announced that Connecticut became the second state in the nation to end veteran homelessness.

That doesn't mean there will never be another homeless veteran but that there is a system in place to target homelessness among the veteran population.

"We won't end homelessness in the sense of no new people," said Cathy Zall, executive director of the New London Homeless Hospitality Center.

After an extensive review by the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, Malloy received word in mid-February that Connecticut had met the necessary criteria for ending veteran homelessness.

The same group certified Connecticut as being the first state to end chronic homelessness among veterans last summer. An individual with a disability who has been homeless for at least one year or has had three or more episodes of homelessness that total one year qualifies as being chronically homeless.

But federal officials don't periodically check up on the state to ensure it continues to achieve this goal, according to the state's Department of Housing Commissioner Evonne Klein. The important point, Klein said, is that there's now a system in place to address the issue.

For a long time, the state was "sort of managing homelessness rather than helping an individual secure a home," she said. "Now we have system in place that will address homeless veterans."

Connecticut has become a "housing first" state, according to Klein, who said in the past the state used to tell a homeless individual that "first you have to get sober, then you have to get a job, then we'll give you a home. That is not the way things work."

Over the course of last year, the system permanently housed 766 homeless veterans in the state, according to Lisa Tepper Bates, executive director of the Connecticut Coalition to End Homelessness.

"We've cleared out a very sad backlog of people we had failed to serve in housing for years," Tepper Bates said.

A team of local, state and federal partners is doing a level of outreach that the state wasn't doing before. That means outright asking, sometimes in different ways, whether someone is a veteran when they walk into a shelter, for example.

The state keeps track of its homeless veteran population by cross referencing data from the Homeless Management Information System, which in Connecticut is administered by the Coalition to End Homelessness, with Veterans Affairs data.

Homeless individuals, who consent to being listed in the HMIS system, usually provide information such as their last known address, age, what their needs are, how long they've been homeless and whether they are a veteran. Once a veteran is identified, an email is sent to both the VA and a Supportive Services for Veteran Families team that prompts outreach workers from either of those networks to go out and connect with the veteran. SSVF is a VA housing program for very low-income veterans and veteran families.

But reaching those who may not know they are veterans or who don't reach out for help can be a hard task.

"We do outreach and word of mouth is pretty effective," Zall said. "I could not, however, say that we have reached everyone. Outreach efforts will need to continue for years."

The intake process at the Homeless Hospitality Center includes "very open-ended questions about military service," Zall said.

"Anyone who indicates any connection with military service goes into the database as a veteran," she said. "If it turns out they are not eligible, that is determined down the road, but everyone is considered who reports any history."

Last year, 10,932 people in Connecticut experienced homelessness, a four-year low, according to the Coalition to End Homelessness.

In 2015, there were 282 homeless veterans — 241 of whom were sheltered and 41 unsheltered — in Connecticut based on HUD's Point-in-Time Count, which is not an exhaustive list and relies on volunteers to individually count the homeless population. In 2014, the count showed 295 homeless veterans: 221 sheltered and 74 unsheltered.

The federal standard for the average time it takes to identify a homeless veteran and to permanently house them is 90 days or less. By the end of 2015, the state had reached a 78-day benchmark, according to Tepper Bates.

The Homeless Hospitality Center, through the VA's Homeless Providers Grant and Per Diem Program, provides housing to veterans on Mountain Avenue in New London for up to two years. The center is working to make the Mountain Avenue residence interim housing rather than two-year transitional housing with the goal of securing permanent housing for the veterans within 90 days, Zall said.

That's a goal all GDP housing programs — 16 different sites consisting of 165 beds — throughout the state are looking to achieve, according to John Chiechi with the VA.

When new veterans become homeless, the organizations work to rapidly rehouse them and connect them with necessary services to ensure that they are not homeless for long and that they don't become homeless again.

Columbus House in New London is one of four organizations in the state that receive grants to administer the SSVF program.

On one end, the program helps applicants who are "teetering on the edge of homelessness," Alison Cunningham, executive director of Columbus House, said in a recent phone interview. For example, transportation to get to work or other forms of "very short-term financial assistance to shore them up so they don't lose housing," Cunningham said.

Additionally, case workers talk those applicants through their options for maintaining their housing for the long term.

On the other end, the program helps homeless applicants through short-term housing assistance such as paying for a security deposit or the first couple of months' rent.

"We work it out according to the needs of the veterans, but the point is to get them out of a homeless situation as quickly as possible," Cunningham said.

There are also employment services attached to SSVF, she said, and "we can help people gain entitlements if they're eligible."

A HUD and VA supportive housing program, known as VASH, provides long-term subsidies for homeless veterans who require case management. Approximately 750 VASH vouchers have been assigned to veterans in Connecticut, each of which costs about $10,000 annually, according to Daniel Arsenault, public information officer for the state Department of Housing. The VA also offers some case management and support services to eligible veterans who receive the subsidy, Arsenault said.

The governor dedicated 100 Rental Assistance Program vouchers to veterans ineligible for the VASH vouchers. The RAP vouchers are about $10,000 annually each.

Commissioner Klein said the state "certainly" has enough affordable housing for its veterans and is continuing to build affordable housing.

"With 30 years of disinvestment, we have some catching up to do," she said.

Connecticut's system for combating veteran homelessness is mainly funded through the federal government.

"... My biggest worry is that sort of politically, people say, 'Oh, you know, OK cross homelessness off the list, that's done.' That's not what ending homelessness means. ... If you stop putting the resources in, new people will become homeless and you won't be able to serve them," Zall said.

President Barack Obama has made a commitment to end veteran homelessness, and Cunningham, of Columbus House, is hoping that will ensure the "federal funding will be there."

"We do a lot of advocacy to show funders at every level that the programs they've invested in have huge impact and are working," she said.

j.bergman@theday.com

Twitter: @JuliaSBergman

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