BREMERTON, Wash. — Forty-five veterans were living without shelter in Kitsap County when a survey was conducted a year ago.
This month that number was down to five, and housing officials say they are on the verge of effectively eliminating veteran homelessness in the county.
"We've made tremendous progress on getting unsheltered veterans indoors," Kitsap County Housing and Homelessness Coordinator Kirsten Jewell said.
The sudden success in housing homeless veterans can be credited to a countywide initiative launched last year. The Homes for All Who Served program started with leadership from Bremerton Mayor Patty Lent, who responded to a federal "Mayors Challenge" urging cities to take the lead on ending veteran homelessness. Partners in the Kitsap initiative have focused on identifying homeless veterans, streamlining access to services like rental assistance, and encouraging landlords to make homes available to vets.
The coordinated effort proved effective. More than 100 veteran households found homes through the program in the past year.
"We've had so much success getting veterans off the streets and inside again," Lent said in a news release updating progress on the initiative. "Our city and county have really stepped up to this challenge, but we still have work to do."
Jewell said the shortage of affordable homes in the county has stymied progress toward fully eliminating veteran homelessness. With the region's housing market booming, affordable units are scarce, even for veterans who qualify for subsidies.
"There's just not enough affordable housing out there," Jewell said. "That's frustrating."
No More Barriers
The success of Homes for All Who Served hinged less on creating new housing services for veterans and more on efficiently linking veterans to the services already available. Referrals and regular surveys have helped housing officials identify and contact individual homeless veterans. Each is offered help locating and paying for housing.
"Our goal is to offer all veterans the opportunity to be inside," Jewell said.
A Veteran Housing Options Group created under the initiative has been key in connecting veterans to existing housing programs. Vets who attend the group's weekly meeting in Bremerton hear presentations from representatives of the federal Department of Veterans Affairs Puget Sound, the state Department of Veterans Affairs, Kitsap County Veterans Assistance Program, Supportive Services for Veteran Families and Kitsap Community Resources' Housing Solutions Center. After the presentations, program representatives meet one-on-one with veterans to discuss their options.
Jackie Fojtik with Housing Solutions Center said homeless veterans previously had to bounce between offices to find assistance. Now they have one place to go.
"There are no more barriers," Fojtik said. "People who went years feeling like they weren't getting service suddenly are getting services."
Despite the progress made in the last year, housing officials say more resources are needed to provide stable housing for veterans in Kitsap and help those who become homeless in the future.
Bremerton Housing Authority Executive Director Kurt Wiest said the county could use more rental assistance vouchers from the federal Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing program, which has been critical for helping low-income veterans pay for permanent housing. The housing authority administers the 42 VASH vouchers currently allocated to Kitsap. Wiest said the number of qualifying veterans far exceeds the number of vouchers available.
"We feel we could easily double that number in terms of need," Wiest said.
Landlords willing to rent to homeless veterans also are in demand, though Homes for All Who Served has succeeded in rallying some rental owners to its cause. Kitsap Community Resources recently hosted an information fair for landlords to familiarize them with veteran housing programs and encourage them to participate in the initiative.
Bremerton property owner Mike Gustavson was among the landlords who committed to housing veterans whenever possible. When one of his 14 units becomes available, Gustavson checks in with the Housing Solutions Center to see if there are veteran households looking for homes. Gustavson, who served in the Navy, said he relishes the opportunity to help.
"I thoroughly enjoy it," he said. "And having the empathy of having been a veteran myself, I can talk their language pretty easily."
Veterans are the focus of the Homes for All Who Served, but backers of the initiative said they've learned lessons that can be applied to helping house the county's broader homeless population. The most recent count found nearly 220 people living without adequate shelter in the county.
"If we can find a way to bring veteran homelessness to zero, we'll have a program we can replicate for other groups," Jewell said.
Wiest said the close coordination between agencies achieved under Homes for All Who Served, and the use of surveys to pinpoint the people most in need of services were both valuable exercises.
"The cooperation has been outstanding," he said.
Program coordinators contacted a number of veterans housed through Homes for All Who Served on behalf of the Kitsap Sun. All declined to be interviewed for this story. The Sun also called Bremerton Salvation Army in hopes of interviewing a homeless veteran, but Social Services Director Sheryl Piercy said she's seen far fewer homeless vets coming to the center for services lately.
"It used to be a really big issue until the last year," Piercy said. "(Homes for All Who Served) made a huge difference."
Copyright 2016 KING, USA Today Network