- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Veteran Affairs Secretary David J. Shulkin has expressed concern that homelessness among former troops in the District has inched higher, even as it has fallen nationwide.

“We are very committed to ending veteran homelessness,” Mr. Shulkin told The Washington Times during his agency’s recent Winterhaven homelessness services fair at the Washington DC VA Medical Center. “This has been a journey which started in 2010 where we made significant progress across the country — a 46 percent reduction nationally. But last year we actually went backwards with a 2 percent increase.”

According to the annual “Point-in-Time” tally of people sleeping outdoors in winter, the District counted 672 homeless in 2017, up from 350 in 2016. The data from last week’s PIT tally will be available in May.

In addition, 14.1 percent of the District’s 28,400 veterans were reported living in poverty in 2016, up from 10.5 percent in 2015, according to the Census Bureau.

Citing poverty as a leading risk factor for homelessness, federal and local providers of human services have begun shifting resources to address the needs of veterans at risk of becoming homeless.

“This marks a shift of our thoughts on our homelessness situation,” VA spokeswoman Gloria Hairston told The Times. “We’re actively looking to engage community partners who can offer employees, and who have a true need and true desire to hire vets who are at an at-risk situation.”

“We’re in the position right now that we are looking at everything in our program to see what’s working and what’s not working and what I call a “reboot” of our strategy,” Mr. Shulkin said.

At the VA’s Winterhaven services fair on Saturday, workers and volunteers sought to connect veterans to resources like medical check-ups and donated clothing. Although the fair originally was designed for homeless veterans, only about half of this year’s record-setting 840 participants were without shelter — the rest being poverty-stricken vets edging closer to the brink of homelessness.

Studies by the VA and the Census Bureau show that the District’s veteran population experiences lower rates of poverty compared to non-veteran residents.

But many veterans face special risk factors like service-related disabilities, PTSD and lack of specific career training that can lead them into poverty and homelessness.

Kevin Morton, the VA’s homelessness coordinator for the District, said the good news is that veterans are gaining access to services faster than ever before.

“What you see now is that they’re wrapping services around people while they’re still active-duty,” Mr. Morton, a 54-year-old former Marine, told The Times. “And if you can get services for your PTSD up front, then it’s so much better.”

The VA also has teamed up with the District to expand housing for veterans “at risk” of being or already homeless. Earlier this month, it opened the $33 million John and Jill Ker Conway Residence in Northeast, with 188 units specially designed for low-income vets.

Mr. Shulkin hailed the Conway project as “a success story,” and said he is looking forward to more partnerships with local governments and community organizations to address veteran issues like the opioid crisis.

Winterhaven is part of that bridge between military and civilian life for local service members, officials say. And if the proportion of at-risk veterans who attend continue to rise compared to homelessness, the event is likely to pivot to more preventive services for the community.

But for some, like Army veteran Bernin Gibson, who has attended Winterhaven since it began 24 years ago, the event remains valuable for everyone because one of the most important services it provides is kindness.

“The thing about it is that everybody is so friendly. If you can’t stand long, they’ll get you a chair,” said Mr. Gibson, 82. “They got us.”

• Julia Airey can be reached at jairey@washingtontimes.com.

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