Austin reaches ‘functional zero’ veteran homelessness status

Marie Albiges |
Source: Community Impact Newspaper

The city of Austin is one step closer to ending veteran homelessness.

Julian Castro, U.S. secretary of Housing and Urban Development, certified Friday that Austin has officially reached “functional zero” veteran homelessness status, meaning at any point in time, the number of veterans experiencing homelessness will be no greater than the community’s average monthly housing placement rate for veterans.

“Places like Austin show that ending homelessness isn’t just a dream, it can become a reality,” Castro said Friday at a news conference at Austin City Hall.

Austin Mayor Steve Adler said 682 veterans have found homes in Austin since former Mayor Lee Leffingwell took on first lady Michelle Obama’s Mayor’s Challenge to End Veteran Homelessness in 2014.

One of those veterans is Manuel “Manny” Moran, an Austin native and ex-Army infantry soldier who lost his house and was separated from his son and daughter when he became homeless.

Moran said with the help of organizations like the Austin Housing Authority, he was able to be placed in a home and reunited with his children this year.

“We found the solution when we addressed the biggest obstacle, which is accessible housing,” Adler said. “Putting housing advocates who need housing in the same room with real estate people who have housing units is so obvious you are entitled to ask why it took us so long to figure it out.”

Adler thanked agencies such as the Austin Ending Community Homeless Coalition, Front Steps, the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce and the Austin Board of Realtors as well as realty companies like Endeavor Real Estate Group and Heritage Title who came together to meet the mayor’s challenge, he said.

Greg McCormack—program director with Front Steps, a nonprofit that provides shelter and resources to Austin’s homeless community—said despite the HUD certification, there are still homeless veterans living in Austin.

He estimates there are less than 50 chronically homeless veterans—who are disabled and have been homeless for more than a year or four times in the last three years—in Austin, along with veterans who have not registered their homelessness status.

For those veterans who don’t register, local outreach is done on a weekly or monthly basis, he said.

Some veterans simply refuse housing, preferring to continue living “off the grid” as they have done for years, McCormack said.

“They’re used to what they’ve been doing,” he said. “But we don’t stop asking [if they want to register].”

He said many of Austin’s veterans—most of whom were enlisted soldiers before quitting the military—become homeless after losing a job. McCormack said it becomes infinitely more difficult to get a job once someone is homeless, because simple things like having a mailing address or a cell phone are not easily accessible.

A criminal background or a history of substance abuse, which McCormack said many homeless Austin veterans have, also makes it hard to get a job and a home.

That’s where Austin’s Housing Heroes Fund comes in. It serves as insurance, guaranteeing that the veteran will be able to afford rent, effectively quelling a property manager’s fear that homeless veterans “might not make good tenants,” Adler said.

Nicolina Kozak, a case manager for the Support Services for Veteran Families program at Front Steps, said the nonprofit works closely with property managers to offer veterans free housing for six to nine months. After that, veterans can apply for a housing voucher with Austin’s Housing Authority or the Housing and Urban Development department.

During the announcement Friday, Adler issued new goals for the city: to end chronic or disabled veteran homelessness in Austin by the end of 2017 and youth homelessness by 2020.

‘This experience has changed who we are,” he said. “Austin is capable of doing more good work like this.”