Originally published at Digital Journal

Phoenix, Arizona recently announced it had become the first US city to successfully end chronic veteran homelessness. Two years ago, there were 222 chronically homeless vets on the city’s streets. Today, there are practically none.

How did the nation’s sixth-largest city accomplish this remarkable achievement? To find out, this Digital Journalist spoke with city leaders, homeless advocates and formerly homeless vets.

Originally, the objective wasn’t to get every homeless veteran off the streets. Project H3 VETS, coordinated and orchestrated by the Arizona Coalition to End Homelessness using plans devised by the Arizona Department of Veterans’ Services (AZDVS), started out with a goal of housing 75 of the most chronically homeless and vulnerable veterans.

“It wasn’t daunting,” said Cloudbreak Communities community development director Brad Bridwell, co-creator of the initiative. “The ball got rolling, and soon after we realized that just 222 chronically homeless veterans existed. And suddenly, that didn’t seem daunting either, and as success after success mounted, agencies started committing more time and resources to the effort.”

“We had really good data. We knew what was out there,” added initiative co-creator Sean Price, AZDVS homeless veteran services coordinator. “So we developed a plan to target those 222, both on the resource side with housing vouchers, and on the financial side by getting donors and support from a number of different [sources]. And we moved forward. Of course there were bumps along the way, but we… fought for the vets and kept moving forward.”

The initiative wouldn’t have worked without support from the highest levels of local government, and Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton delivered upon a campaign pledge to tackle the city’s homeless problem.

“Every city is different and has its own unique circumstances, but in Phoenix, I simply made fighting homelessness one of my top goals,” Stanton explained. “It was a clear priority and we had incredible people committed to this goal.”

It may sound cliché, but nearly all of the key participants in the initiative attributed its success to exceptional teamwork.

“This is a great case of government, non-profit, business, charity and the faith community working seamlessly together,” said Stanton. Major contributors include AZDVS, Valley of the Sun United Way, Maricopa County Industrial Development Authority, the City of Phoenix, and Arizona Department of Housing.

Phoenix City Councilman Jim Waring said that identifying the target population was the “first order of business.” To that end, Project H3 VETS dispatched more than 150 community volunteers beginning in 2011 to assess and prioritize the most vulnerable homeless vets living on the streets or in shelters in the Phoenix metro area. They searched streets, alleys, vacant lots and other areas where homeless veterans lived.

On average, a chronically homeless veteran in Phoenix had been living on the street for eight years. The oldest among them was 77 years old; he’d been homeless since the 1970s.

“There are some guys we housed who were 30 or 40 years homeless,” said Price.

In order to ensure they didn’t fall back into homelessness, project leaders decided early on to adopt a “housing first” model, in which the emphasis is on placing homeless vets in housing with minimal, if any, preconditions. US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) vouchers were distributed to chronically homeless veterans “with the greatest need, not necessarily those who were on the waiting list the longest,” Stanton explained.

“With the ‘housing first’ approach, you get someone into housing, and they’re no longer fighting to survive,” said Price. “On the streets, they’re fighting every day to find food, to be safe — violence against the homeless is very high.”

Indeed, the streets are a dangerous place for anyone, even military-trained men. Project H3 VETS says one in four of them has been the victim of a violent attack since becoming homeless.

“It’s a life or death issue,” stressed Councilman Waring.

Once housed, Price said veterans “realize that, hey, I’m safe, now I can actually start addressing my other needs — mental health, physical health, substance abuse.”

Mayor Stanton said that Phoenix’s approach was instrumental in “breaking the cycle of homelessness.”

“Once you get a roof over that homeless person’s head, and let’s say they have drug or alcohol issues, they may fall off the wagon occasionally. This way, they don’t lose their housing when that occurs. They’re allowed to stay in the housing and continue their recovery.”

Bridwell added that “housing first” means advocates “can engage [homeless vets] previously thought to be ‘service resistant'”– those who, for varying reasons, don’t want to leave the streets or address their problem behaviors such as substance abuse– and get those individuals “into housing and services.”

Project H3 VETS turned to non-profit Community Bridges and its team of navigators, or peer support professionals, to help homeless vets find housing and other essential services. Mayor Stanton called these navigators the “unsung heroes of the effort, not only in Phoenix, but across the country,” a sentiment repeatedly voiced by those who participated in the initiative.

“The navigation team and all the support they provide to the veterans is the absolute key,” stressed Price, who also credited HUD’s Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing program (HUD-VASH) case managers with being an integral part of the effort’s success.

The navigators, said Price, are the reason why 93 percent of Phoenix’s chronically homeless vets remain off the streets. Some of the navigators are formerly homeless veterans themselves.

Bryan Reilly, an eloquent, soft-spoken 25-year-old Iraq war veteran and recovering heroin addict, was never actually living on the street, but he did “bounce from house to house” for an extended period after leaving the military. A typical day of navigating for Reilly involves checking his computer for VA referrals and following up with outreach to homeless vets.

“I’ll go out and find a veteran and from there, we sit down, get his documentation done and start the process of getting him into housing,” Reilly explained. “Once we get him into housing… we help them with whatever they need to get them back on track to living a stable life again.”

Rebecca Pringle, communications director for the Arizona Coalition to End Homelessness, said navigators do so much more than just outreach and engagement.

“They take them to appointments, navigate them through the paperwork, get them their drivers licenses, social security cards and coordinate housing logistics,” explained Pringle. “Once housed, they are there to provide whatever it is they need.” That includes “taking them to a movie, to lunch… just making sure they are getting what they need to stay successful in ending their homelessness.”

Additionally, Bridwell said navigators also help with “case management, benefits assistance, housing stabilization, employment assistance, legal aid, in-home life skills development, health care access and other critical care services.”

The assistance is invaluable to individuals fighting to survive on so many fronts.

“When I got back, I struggled with PTSD,” said Reilly, referring to the post-traumatic stress disorder that affects nearly 30 percent of Iraq and Afghanistan vets treated by the VA. “I suffered from anxiety attacks. I struggled to relate to other people. I self-isolated a lot. I found myself losing friends. I could no longer find a common bond with them. I had vivid nightmares. I still have them today. I sleep maybe two to three hours at a time.”

Reilly isn’t alone — according to Project H3 VETS, Nearly half of the chronically homeless veterans in the Phoenix area suffer from either PTSD or traumatic brain injury. Three out of four are dealing with at least one behavioral health issue, and 44 percent reported signs or symptoms of mental illness.

Like so many other veterans suffering from PTSD, Reilly self-medicated. “I started off with Oxycontin, and then it went from there to alcohol, and eventually that led to heroin,” he confessed, although he says has now been clean for two and a half years.

Again, Reilly’s experience is anything but unusual. Project H3 VETS statistics show that two out of every three of Phoenix’s chronically homeless veterans has a history of substance abuse. One in three suffers from both mental illness and drug or alcohol dependency issues.

“It’s hard to get up in the morning and stay focused,” said Reilly. “It’s hard for me to get through some days. Some days, I’ve had to get up and walk out of rooms to keep my calm.”

Reilly said the greatest challenge facing homeless veterans is having “someone there to help them, to guide them back, to help them transition back into that normal civilian life. It’s a huge transition.”

A significant number of chronically homeless veterans recently back from wartime deployments are struggling with that transition today. Shockingly, seven percent of the homeless veterans in Phoenix served in Afghanistan or Iraq, a situation Councilman Waring called “unacceptable.”

“We want to do better by our veterans this time than we’ve done in the past,” said Waring, referring to the massive number of homeless Vietnam veterans.

“It’s very disheartening to hear that our service members have gone overseas and fought for our country and come back and now don’t have a place to stay,” added Iraq vet Reilly. “They’re living on the street and dealing with all these issues and they’re not really getting the help they need.”

Other cities are following Phoenix’s lead. Last month, Salt Lake City, which had been engaged in a friendly competition with Phoenix to see who could be the first to achieve the goal of ending chronic veteran homelessness, announced it had become the second US city to do so. President Barack Obama has declared the goal of ending all veteran homelessness in America by 2015, a target Price says is “doable” for the chronically homeless.

With approximately one in four homeless US adults being veterans, and more than 75,000 veterans living on America’s streets or in temporary shelters on any given night, urgent action is imperative. Waring called theses statistics “quite staggering.”

And while Phoenix may have declared ‘mission accomplished,’ Price cites the seven percent of formerly homeless Phoenix veterans who have been housed but have fallen back into homelessness as proof that more can be done.

“We don’t just give up,” he insisted.

“When you uproot people who serve their country, you’ve got to give them a soft place to land when they come back,” said Waring. “If they fall on hard times, the least that you can do is try to make sure they have a bed and shelter, [as well as] the counseling and training they need to move forward.”

“There are no throw-away people in my city,” stressed Mayor Stanton. “Everyone has value… So many homeless people were, at one point in their lives, solidly middle class. And things happened in their lives where they ended up on the streets.” With the right care, Stanton asserts that these people can return to the ranks of the middle class, “fully employed and paying taxes.”

“My attitude is that there but for the grace of God go any of us,” Stanton concluded. “My outlook on helping the homeless is, ‘that could be me someday if my life doesn’t work out, for whatever reason. So when helping chronically homeless veterans, not only are we doing right by those who served their country, we’re also doing right by ourselves.”