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Advocates for homeless vets prepare to do more with less

May. 27, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  
Army veteran T.J. Smith, seen with Rachel Brown, is among tens of thousands of veterans facing affordable housing issues. Brown works for the Hoosier Veterans Assistance Foundation, which has helped Smith avoid homelessness.
Army veteran T.J. Smith, seen with Rachel Brown, is among tens of thousands of veterans facing affordable housing issues. Brown works for the Hoosier Veterans Assistance Foundation, which has helped Smith avoid homelessness. (Hoosier Veterans Assistance Foundation)
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It took only about $1,000 to keep T.J. Smith from becoming homeless.

The 68-year-old Army veteran had been living in a rural Indiana motel for 2½ years, paying about $150 a week to keep a temporary roof over his head. Saving cash for a security deposit to move into a stable apartment was impossible, with car payments and grocery bills eating up the remainder of his veterans disability check.

So when his 2005 Ford Escape needed repairs in January, he was left with a choice: either keep his SUV running so he could get to his VA medical appointments (a 60-mile drive) or keep a roof over his head.

“I didn’t know what I was going to do,” he said.

Officials at Hoosier Veterans Assistance Foundation found the answer. They obtained a small Supportive Services for Veteran Families grant for Smith, just enough to cover the security deposit and first month’s rent for an apartment in nearby Shelbyville.

His rent costs are the same, but his new place has “a good kitchen, a nice-sized living room, and a enclosed front porch” — luxuries he hasn’t enjoyed in years.

Smith’s story serves as both an inspiration and warning for homeless veterans advocates, hundreds of whom will gather in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday for the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans conference.

After dramatic increases in assistance programs in recent years, housing advocates trying to end the problem of veterans homelessness are anticipating that funding to level off or drop as federal agencies face tighter budgets in coming years.

That means they’ll have to find and help veterans like Smith with fewer resources. But it also shows that it can be done.

The Veterans Affairs Department’s public push to address the problem has led to a 25 percent drop in the number of homeless veterans from 2010 to 2013, with about 58,000 still living on the streets, according to the latest figures available.

Federal officials expect that number to drop even further when the next official point-in-time count is released later this year. Leaders in Phoenix and Salt Lake City have declared an end to chronic veterans homelessness in their metropolitan areas, with several other cities close behind.

That’s good news, but it also leaves the remaining homeless veteran population in some of the toughest areas of the country to reach.

A report from the Housing Assistance Council released in April found the lack of affordable housing in rural areas can force many veterans there into costly repairs for property upkeep, which in turn can lead to substandard living conditions in the future.

Gretchen Hiller, a case manager with HVAF of Indiana, said Smith’s story is typical of many of the veterans her organization helps: individuals in hard-to-reach rural areas, with access to limited social services and spotty VA programs.

“It’s a real challenge, not only to find folks who need help, but also to get them help,” she said.

In Smith’s case, he had to move across county lines to become eligible for the SSVF grant, because his temporary home was too far from VA facilities to qualify. Even though his new home is only about 30 miles away, the city has better emergency shelters, food banks and a host of other assistance organizations at the ready.

This week’s conference — titled “Bridging the Gap” — is designed to tackle those looming access issues, and to discuss how to make sure veterans like Smith don’t become the next wave of homeless veterans.

For his part, Smith said that one small grant has made a gigantic difference in his life. He’s starting to get his own furniture in the new apartment, and has started volunteering at the local Salvation Army. Now he’s less worried about having a roof over his head and more concerned with becoming part of his new community.

“I’m in heaven,” he said.

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