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Ending Homelessness Among San Diego Veterans Remains A Challenge

Homeless camps in downtown San Diego, March 14, 2014
Nicholas McVicker
Homeless camps in downtown San Diego, March 14, 2014
The Challenge To End Homelessness Among Veterans In San Diego
The Challenge To End Homelessness Among Veterans In San Diego
The Challenge To End Homelessness Among San Diego Veterans GUEST:Phil Landis, president & CEO, Veterans Village of San Diego.

ALISON ST JOHN: The House Committee on Veterans Affairs took testimony this month on a federal initiative to end veteran homelessness by 2015. As hundreds of thousands of active duty personnel return to our communities, many struggle to adjust and homelessness is just one symptom of that battle. So it's not surprising that we're still a long way from that goal. Here to talk with us about how far we've come and why we haven't reached the goal and what more we need to do is Phil Landis, president and C E O of Veterans Village, a non-profit organization founded by Vietnam vets in San Diego more than 20 years ago. So Phil, thank you very much for joining us. PHIL LANDIS: Oh listen, it's a real honor to be here. ALISON ST JOHN: Well, you were right there in Washington D C when this house committee was meeting, when you first heard, back in 2009, the president and Shinseki say they wanted to end veteran homelessness by 2015; did you think it was feasible? PHIL LANDIS: Well, no one thought it was feasible. Actually no one thought we would be so far along this continuum as we are today. We've made enormous progress on national basis. This isn't an issue that is solely to San Diego. This is our fox hole, so this is where we look at the world, but it's truly a national state by state by state issue; but we're making enormous strides. ALISON ST JOHN: So according to this report that came out this month, nationwide vet homelessness was reduced by 33 percent since 2009, you know, so that's a start - about a third. Can you tell us a bit more about how those numbers play out in San Diego? PHIL LANDIS: Well, we've seen an interesting almost inverse. The amount of reduction here is less. In some regards the population is shifting. We're seeing a lot more younger veterans what we call the "post 9/11" veterans that are now falling into homelessness here in San Diego. Our numbers have not been reduced as rapidly as other locations have. San Diego remains a destination of men and women who have served their country and whose enlistments have expired; many of them like to come here and stay here, so we see that reflected on our homeless population as well. ALISON ST JOHN: I understand at the last count there were about 1,300 total homeless vets in San Diego as of January 2014. And about 800 of them were in shelter and others were just on the street, so it's still a significant number; isn't it? PHIL LANDIS: It's a very significant number and you have to take these numbers somewhat with a grain of salt. Remember, veterans know how to hide. They teach us about being in (CHECK AUDIO)and where the point and time count which is what you're referring to, reflected, that number are on the ground observations. The number of men and women that we work with on a daily basis, you know, tell us really there are more than that. I think everyone is aware of it, we just don't know how many more there are, but there are more. ALISON ST JOHN: Right. So the federal government invested millions into this initiative and some of them -- I understand about 207 million more was just announced in October; how much has come to San Diego, do you know? And how much has the Veterans Village actually benefitted? PHIL LANDIS: Well, I think all of the service providers providing services to veterans have benefitted by this enormous influx of funding on the federal level. Veterans Village in particular, we have been blessed with several programs that are designed specifically to meet that veteran at a nexus point before they fall into homelessness, provide services at that base point so that we deflect that downward spiral very successfully. We have two grants from the government to help us do that. This has been an extraordinarily successful program. It's called S S V F - stands for Services for Veterans, and it works. My great concern is that over time the funding for these programs which has been so ambitious will be scaled back, perhaps too much. ALISON ST JOHN: When no one is looking kind of thing. PHIL LANDIS: Right. ALISON ST JOHN: When the attention is off of it PHIL LANDIS: So I know we're good for another three years of funding. That's in the pipeline. What happens after that, I just don't know. ALISON ST JOHN: But isn't it true to say that there is kind of a model for ending homelessness that's being promoted for ending homelessness which is to do with providing housing first. I believe you have some concerns, rather, that really works for the veteran population; can you talk a bit about that? PHIL LANDIS: I would be happy to. Housing first, as it’s known, is a very, very effective tool and works for a large number of the veteran population for that matter for the homeless population whether they are veterans or not. ALISON ST JOHN: Just to clarify what that means. People who may not know, that means instead of expecting somebody to give up drugs and clean up their lives before they get a permanent house, you give them a permanent basis to start with so they have a basis to start working forward with. PHIL LANDIS: Yes, that's correct. And that's what they mean housing first. Housing before treatment. We see some good. But we also see some short falls. I think we need a work a little smarter from, again, our vantage point. We think that the population that we're serving -- in fact, let me just talk a little bit about that. ALISON ST JOHN: Please do. PHIL LANDIS: At Veterans Village in our long-term residential treatment facility, we have two-thirds of that population have diagnosable chronic mental illness by the time they reach us. Two-thirds. 70 percent have already been incarcerated. Of the younger population, the post 9/11 vets, the percentage of incarceration goes up to 85 percent. ALISON ST JOHN: Wow. PHIL LANDIS: Yeah. These are enormously challenged men and women. And if you are a woman veteran and you are homeless and you have reached us, I can assure you that layered on top of those other challenges that you have is going to be military sexual trauma. So these are severely challenged men and women. ALISON ST JOHN: And Phil, would you say much of the cause of their suffering is because of what they experienced when they were serving? PHIL LANDIS: Well, not necessarily. ALISON ST JOHN: Okay. PHIL LANDIS: Sometimes the root causes really are too -- ALISON ST JOHN: Go way back. PHIL LANDIS: Yeah. Go way back. You just don't know. From our perspective, we don't really care. ALISON ST JOHN: They served and here they are. PHIL LANDIS: You bet. And we're going to meet you where you are and provide services to you. I'd like to expand a little bit on this concept of treatment. We like to think of it in terms of housing plus. Not housing first. Housing plus. Now this group that I just defined for you, we have found that when these men and women are placed into a housing first situation they tend to be isolated. Then no one is really paying too much attention to the underlying root causes of homelessness, root causes of any addiction issues or trauma issues we would like to see a little more focus on treatment. ALISON ST JOHN: And you gave some examples, I believe, at this hearing of people who were put into housing first and it did not turn out so well. PHIL LANDIS: Yes, I did. And I spoke of nine individuals in my testimony. But really just a small number of those that we are directly aware of through V V S D, these are men and women who have gone into the housing first model through what is called a VASH voucher it's a HUD, V A concept - think of it as section 8 for veterans. ALISON ST JOHN: Okay. PHIL LANDIS: So you get the voucher. Then with the voucher a large percentage of your rent is going to be covered as it would with section 8. But with this group, with this -- probably a subset of a subset, this is where we're concerned because it's a fairly large number of people in the aggregate. If you've got 60,000 veterans that are in this VASH housing, and 20 percent of them fall within this subset that is 12,000 people a year. We're talking about a lot of folks. ALISON ST JOHN: And hundreds in San Diego. PHIL LANDIS: Hundreds and hundreds in San Diego. So we believe that you need to focus with this group of people on helping them change their behavior and that can only be done through treatment. It doesn't mean that you ignore the basic needs of housing, but housing plus. Our organization has always believed in that. One of the first things we're going to do is put you in a house. ALISON ST JOHN: But, you know, when you look at the amount of money being put into housing versus put into health services for the veterans, I understand it was about a billion for the housing side of this initiative and five billion for the health; how come the health needs have not been being addressed? PHIL LANDIS: A billion here. A billion there. ALISON ST JOHN: That's what it seems like. I was looking at some of the latest statistics on the homeless veteran population in San Diego. And they -- 68 percent of them are registered, I believe with the V A health system. And only 58 percent actually use it, so why is it many homeless vets are not using the V A services? PHIL LANDIS: Part of it is transportation. Part of it is just don't want to be bothered. Part of it is maybe a bad experience at one time with the V A, it's just hard to tell. But if you have them in a treatment facility like ours here in San Diego, you have a lot of control over that. One of the very first things we want to do is help you treat your underlying physical and psychological issues as well and that's what we focus on. ALISON ST JOHN: Interesting. Because one of the things that helps active duty personnel survive in combat is the buddy system, isn't it; so how important is that when you're looking at surviving when you get back into the civilian world? If you're put alone into however nice the house, maybe that is really not what is going to help. PHIL LANDIS: You really hit it. And that's what we see too with this group of men and women. When you isolate someone, and this is what happened with these folks that I talked about. When you take them out of their comfort zones, when you remove them from their support groups, when you take away from them the daily sense of accountability that a program like ours provides and treatment, therapy, and the rest of that they tend to get lost and they don't do too well. So my hope would be that we develop a little more flexibility and work smarter. ALISON ST JOHN: I need to mention another fact that came out of this report 40 thousand vets called the V A national call center for homeless vets and did not get through. I mean, what is the problem here? Is it lack of funding, bureaucratization, disorganization? Is there any sense that people who do pick up the phone and call for help might actually stand a better chance of getting it? PHIL LANDIS: What a tragedy really. I mean we do a remarkable job in San Diego with our 211 here. We partner locally with 211. I've never heard of a single instance where any one was put on hold that called our local line. I think it's a travesty. I think people are dying as a result of reaching out and then being placed in queue and the queue going into a recording and no one calls you back, what the heck is that all about. Someone needs to be removed from the system and find another job because they are not being very effective at what they're doing. ALISON ST JOHN: In just the minute we have left, one of the things you told the committee was that you think 25 percent of this population will need our care for the rest of their lives. PHIL LANDIS: 25 percent of the group of folks we meet. Yeah, you know, with a lot of these men and women, you know, they are never going back to work. It is an unrealistic expectation, and they're going to require the kind of services that V V S D provides on an ongoing basis for the rest of their lives. Simply taking them putting them into an isolated house isn't going to cut it. ALISON ST JOHN: Okay. Well, we will leave it at that. It seems that is the challenge for trying to take the initiative to the next step. Thank you so much. That's Phil Landis, C E O of Veterans Village here in San Diego. Thanks Phil. PHIL LANDIS: Thank you. It's been an honor. Stay with us. Coming up next, that amount of money donated to charities nationwide during giving Tuesday more than doubled this year from last year. What motivates us to give and how are non-profits tapping into that feeling.

President Barack Obama set an ambitious goal in 2009 of ending chronic homelessness among veterans by 2015.

That’s just a few days away, and the goal hasn’t been achieved. But progress has occurred, with the number of homeless veterans in the U.S. cut by 33 percent since 2009, according to veteran service providers who presented the figures last week to the House Committee on Veterans Affairs.

Phil Landis, president of the nonprofit Veterans Village of San Diego, was among those who testified before the committee. Landis told KPBS Midday Edition on Wednesday that those seeking to end homelessness among veterans need to “work smarter.”

Landis said the Veterans Affairs Housing First Program, an initiative to place veterans in homes, should be changed to “housing plus” — with more attention given to helping the veterans with the issues that led to them being homeless.

“We have found when these men and women are placed in a Housing First situation, they tend to be isolated,” Landis said. “No one is really paying attention to the root causes of homelessness.”

He said two-thirds of the veterans served by Veterans Village of San Diego have been diagnosed with chronic mental illness, and 70 percent have been incarcerated. Of the post-9/11 veterans his nonprofit serves, 85 percent have been incarcerated.

“We would like a little more focus on treatment,” Landis said. “We need to help them change their behavior, and that can only be done with treatment.”

Landis believes long-term residential treatment is essential to getting veterans permanently off the streets. That kind of controlled environment would be the “magic ingredient” to solving homelessness for veterans, he said.

In San Diego County, an estimated 8,520 people were homeless based on a count conducted in January, according to the county Regional Task Force on the Homeless. Of those, about 1,300 were veterans.

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