"We really had no answer to veterans’ homelessness back when I came to A-SPAN in 2008. The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) was dysfunctional, and there wasn't much supportive housing." So, Kathy Sibert, executive director and CEO of A-SPAN, made it a priority. "It is terrible if we're not paying attention to servicemen when they are coming home." Now Arlington is celebrating ending veterans’ homelessness in Arlington.
Sibert remembers that a political appointee from the VA came and spoke at the Department of Human Services (DHS) and said we should be able to end veterans' homelessness in Arlington. "At that time we had about 25 in our database. I said, 'Could you set up a meeting?' We had all of these different silos." Siebert remembers they went down to the VA, and it was the most depressing meeting. "They gave us four different people to talk to."
Then she went to a conference the next week and attended a breakout session where all of those four people were there. She told them all, "We want housing choice vouchers." At the end of the day she grabbed the head of the VA medical program to reinforce the point. "He called me and said he had five return vouchers that Arlington could have." Then she added they had to teach local people in DHS who handled vouchers because they were porting them over."
If you fast forward to today, she says Michelle Obama and Jill Biden were both focused on veterans. "So much of that stuff is top down, and they were able to change a lot of things."
Housing vouchers were handled in HUD, HHS and VA, but working groups were set up to break down silos. "As things got easier, we developed relationships with the VA to get vouchers. Arlington was the second community in the nation to get to zero homeless veterans.
Sibert estimates they have housed about 45 homeless veterans, but this is only the beginning. "What we do is not all about housing." To keep the veterans housed and to transition successfully into a healthy lifestyle, it takes continued assistance by the A-SPAN caseworker to help provide job training, assist with physical or mental needs and reestablish relationships with the veterans' families. “They get anything they need — uniforms, certifications, training, specialty care they might need." Many veterans are disabled and qualify for 100 percent of affordable rent. Others are able to work, "and they want to work so a small part of their salary goes to pay part of the rent."
On Nov. 7 A-SPAN held a Happy Hour for Continuing Care for our Vets at the Rhodeside Grill to raise funds for this continuing care. The room was packed with enthusiastic supporters receiving door prizes, winning the 50/50 raffle and taking home art created by the clients.
Siebert says recently there was a nationwide drive to house 100,000 homeless over a three-year period. "The 100,000th person was one of our clients — a veteran, so he was featured on Capitol Hill and special ceremonies.
"I'm really proud of Arlington. [The county] has really been focused on this as a need. We have broken down a number of silos so we can pretty quickly move the veterans into housing."
A-SPAN's goal is to end homelessness in Arlington which they approach through a range of services through the Homeless Services Center that focuses on the needs of the whole person. They offer a day program with meals, showers plus access to laundry, a nurse practitioner, and case management to apply for benefits, exploration of training or job opportunities.
In addition, A-SPAN has a shelter program with sleeping arrangements for up to 80 people per night plus 25 additional hypothermia beds when needed in the winter and access to the same services as the day program. Annually they have provided over 1,300 free medical visits, 32,000 meals and shelter for over 500 people plus permanent housing to over 100 people since 2007.
According to Arlington's latest Point in Time Count, 124 single adults remain homeless. "A-SPAN is committed to finding the right housing solution for everyone remaining on the streets or staying in shelter today."