- Associated Press - Sunday, January 24, 2016

FAYETTEVILLE, N.C. (AP) - The vow by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs in 2010 that it would end veteran homelessness in five years struck many at the time as one more hollow promise to those who had served when their country needed them.

But last year two North Carolina cities - Fayetteville and Winston-Salem - succeeded in ending homelessness for military veterans who want off the streets. Raleigh and Durham expect to celebrate that milestone in the coming months. Veterans Affairs refers to it as reaching “functional zero,” meaning that every known veteran who is willing to move into permanent housing has done so, and any veteran who becomes newly homeless can be quickly housed, usually within a month and sometimes in less than a week.

Nationally, the VA’s ambitious goal was not met, but in the annual nationwide count of the homeless last January, the number of veterans without permanent housing had dropped by 35 percent compared with 2010. Those who work in the field say this year’s count, on Jan. 27, should show a precipitous decline.

The five-year effort to eliminate the old and complex problem of veteran homelessness has tested the nation’s political and fiscal resolve and forced a major policy shift that advocates say could be used as a model for eliminating and preventing all homelessness in the United States.

“It’s called ‘housing first,’” said Laressa Witt, local program manager at Family Endeavors. That’s a Texas-based nonprofit with three offices in North Carolina dedicated to getting homeless veterans into permanent housing. During the fiscal year that ended in October, Witt said, Family Endeavors placed 280 homeless veterans into housing in Fayetteville and Cumberland County alone.

In the past, most programs aimed at reducing homelessness took a “treatment first” approach. They required participants to deal with drug and alcohol addictions, mental illness and other problems before government agencies or charities would invest in utility and apartment deposits and monthly rents.

“But people need stable housing to have the energy to get a job,” Witt said.

Brothers Richard and David Pittman of Fayetteville say they learned after they became homeless that once you’re on the street, just surviving is a full-time job.

Richard, 54, and David, 50, grew up in Fayetteville, sons of a career Army sergeant.

Richard moved back to Fayetteville about 15 years ago to care for his parents, who were aging and sliding into ill health, and for an older brother, who was mentally ill. While he was taking care of them, a sister also fell ill with cancer. Eventually, David also returned to Fayetteville to help.

Their sister died first. A few years later, in 2013, they lost their mother, their father and finally their brother.

After the funerals, they decided to take a break, go hike the Appalachian Trail for a month, come back and decide what to do next.

“When we came back, the house had been torn apart, just ripped all to pieces, top to bottom,” Richard said. Wiring, duct work, fixtures, all stolen. Everything else had been destroyed.

The brothers camped out amid the ruins for a few months, but they couldn’t afford to make repairs and, when it got cold and they built a fire in the backyard to stay warm, a neighbor called police. The home was condemned.

They moved into some woods within walking distance of the old neighborhood - the same woods where they had played as boys. Resourceful and handy with tools, they cuts small trees and built a structure large enough for two cots.

The Pittmans stayed together, both for company and safety, and generally stayed away from other homeless groups, they said.

In November, David saw a notice in the paper about a stand-down, an event where government and charity agencies offer services such as haircuts and health screenings to the homeless and enroll them in assistance programs.

There they met Witt and one of her outreach workers, Sharon Covington.

Covington joined Family Endeavors’ Fayetteville office after the company set up in North Carolina to compete for funds in the VA’s Supportive Services for Veteran Families program.

“It’s a very good model,” said Witt, of Family Endeavors. “But it takes both case management and temporary financial assistance.”

About 60 percent of Supportive Services money is used get homeless veterans and their families into permanent, affordable housing, and 40 percent to help veterans who are about to lose their housing.

The work often begins with meetings between the agency that holds the grant and other local groups that work with the homeless. The agency compiles a list of known homeless veterans by name and caseworkers begin tracking them down.

Many of those who have worn the uniform don’t identify as veterans if they didn’t serve in combat or never deployed. So they’re unaware of the range of programs the VA has to offer eligible homeless veterans.

Checking their military service records and seeing that the Pittman brothers had not been dishonorably discharged, Family Endeavors verified that Richard and David met the other program eligibility requirements: They were homeless or about to become homeless, and their income did not exceed 50 percent of the median for the area.

Once they enrolled in the Supportive Services program through Family Endeavors, it was only a couple of weeks before the Pittman brothers left behind their makeshift shelter in the woods.

The first night in their new apartment, in mid-December, the brothers looked around incredulously at their good fortune. They had running water, lights, heating and cooling on demand.

“That first night,” David said, “I didn’t know what to do. I had been out in the woods so long, I slept on the floor.”

The next night, he turned down the covers, slipped in, and slept.

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