Proving It’s Possible: How Phoenix Ended Chronic Veteran Homelessness

Just more than two years ago, one hundred plus volunteers huddled in the dark of night to prepare to count and engage every Veteran experiencing chronic homelessness on the streets of Phoenix. Their task was the first step toward an ambitious but worthwhile goal: place every Veteran experiencing chronic homelessness in our community in permanent housing.

Through our counts, we knew 222 Veterans were sleeping on Phoenix streets for an average of eight years. Yes, eight years. And today, each one is under a roof he or she can call his own.

Phoenix may have been the first city in the country to end chronic homelessness among Veterans, but already, we’re not the most recent to do so. Salt Lake City too accomplished this incredible feat, and what’s most exciting about our success is that it can be replicated in any community in America. 

Our community was successful because of two critical components: a deliberate, coordinated partnership among a wide range of groups, and a strategy called Housing First.

Because I’ve been working on homelessness issues my entire adult life, I’ve seen first-hand many well-intentioned efforts start strong, but fall short. That’s often the case when a single government agency or a lone non-profit organization aims to tackle the problem alone.

Our effort demonstrates that when it comes to this issue, we are stronger when we work together. In an unprecedented effort in our state, the City of Phoenix, the Federal government, the State Veterans’ Services Department, local businesses, the faith community, and a wide-range of dedicated non-profits took on this challenge as a single group. With the Arizona Coalition to End Homelessness, we formed Project H3 Vets – an effort that has earned national recognition.

Those involved trained together, planned together, and every step of the way made sure our efforts worked in harmony toward our mission.

Through those trainings, Project H3 better understood what worked – and what didn’t work – in the past. For example, some groups that work with those experiencing chronic homelessness attempt to tackle underlying causes before finding individuals a home. In these cases, some individuals are only offered housing if they first are able to vanquish behavioral health challenges – such as drug or alcohol addiction.

This approach may work for some, but with national retention rates in the mere 60s, too many who desperately needed help weren’t getting it.

Project H3 took a different approach – Housing First – which operates on the premise that it is more effective to secure social services for those experiencing chronic homelessness when they first have the stability of housing, whether it be bridge, temporary, or permanent.  With that stability as a foundation, our partner organizations can then help individual Veterans get back on their feet.

Housing First works. In Phoenix, the retention rate for housed Veterans is steady at 94 percent. 

One by one, we replaced despair with keys through a doorway of stability, and hopelessness with the treasure of simple, clean furnishings and kitchen utensils many of us take for granted.

After 15 years of sleeping on concrete, Robert, a Navy Veteran, now sleeps on a regular bed, and was offered the support he needed to stay sober for nine months and counting. William, who saw combat in Iraq, is getting help to cope with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and drug abuse that followed his time in action. And Terry, who was brutally attacked while living on the streets, has neighbors who look out to make sure he’s safe.

I’ve heard the argument that in tough times, we shouldn’t spend the few dollars we have to help those experiencing homelessness get off the streets. But the reality is that the cost of a single person experiencing chronic homelessness is far more expensive than the funds used for housing vouchers and reduced rent. 

Each year, the average person experiencing chronic homelessness takes three ambulance uses, visits the emergency room three times, and is hospitalized twice. Combine that with other costs such as psychiatric care, jail, rehabilitation, and court fees and it is easy to see why taxpayers actually bear a heavier burden when our fellow citizens live on the street for long periods of time.

I’m proud of what the Phoenix community achieved together, but there is still much work to do. 

Through the city’s H.E.R.O. Initiative, we’re working to help Veterans who can work find a job. We remain vigilant to keep our retention rate as high as possible. And we’re ready to take the lessons we’ve learned from this effort and apply them to efforts to end chronic homelessness among our entire population.

It won’t be easy. It will take many more nights huddled in the dark. More patience and more planning. We’ve proven once that we can accomplish anything when we work together. We’re ready to prove it again.

posted in: