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Obama's Pledge To End Veteran Homelessness: Lessons From Orlando, Tampa

VA Secretary Bob McDonald took a tour in Florida to look at how Orlando has created a 'functional zero' in veteran homelessness.
VA Secretary Bob McDonald took a tour in Florida to look at how Orlando has created a 'functional zero' in veteran homelessness.

It was six years ago when President Barack Obama vowed to end homelessness among veterans by the end of 2015. Nearly a year later, that hasn't happened.

But there have been successes. Two states, Virginia and Connecticut, and dozens of cities like Orlando are considered to be at “functional zero,” having ended chronic homelessness among veterans. That means homeless veterans have an immediate system of housing and services at their disposal.

Bob McDonald, Secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs, visited Florida this week to congratulate Orlando on their success and to help push Tampa to that final goal of no veterans living on the streets.

McDonald got a personal tour of Bernie Godette’s one-bedroom, fully furnished apartment at Haley Park Apartments in Tampa. After six years of being homeless, Godette delights in having a home with features like an icemaker and clothes washer and dryer.

“It ain’t always been this way,” Godette told McDonald. “I’ve been sleeping in tents, in the woods, in my car, sleeping at bus stations, sleeping in homeless shelters, sleeping in missions. So God has really blessed me.”

Godette and McDonald both served in the Army, but they have traveled different roads since. McDonald became the CEO of Procter & Gamble while Godette fell on hard times after a divorce. He bounced around from North Carolina to Texas to West Virginia and finally Florida.

As a homeless veteran, Godette qualified for a HUD-VASH voucher. Money from the Department of Housing and Urban Development for rent combined with VA services for things like health care and job training.

And Godette has applied for a job at the James A. Haley VA Medical Center, which is less than a mile from his new apartment. It prompted McDonald to call over Haley’s director Joe Battle to introduce the two.

Making connections was one of McDonald’s strengths as a seasoned businessman and it’s serving him well as VA secretary. He took copious notes and traded contact information with key people involved in the Tampa/Hillsborough homeless veterans’ coalition.

He listened and asked for more information on their Operation Reveille concept, which brings together a wide range of partners, non-profit organizations, government agencies, service groups and volunteers for a one-day event to have a direct impact on homeless veterans. In 2015, the Tampa event got housing and services for 50 veterans in one day.

Yet there are an estimated 180 veterans without a permanent home in Hillsborough and Tampa, according to the February 2016 homeless count. That’s down 42 percent from 2015, but still not at functional zero like Orlando where Secretary McDonald visited Thursday.

“Frankly, because Orlando has already been cited as ending chronic veteran homelessness, Orlando is ahead of Tampa,” McDonald told an Orlando reporter. ”But what I see going on in Tampa is very similar. Number one: the community engagement. Ending veterans’ homelessness is a team sport.”

And McDonald said that team is strongest with players participating from all levels of government, as well as veterans, civic leaders and businesses. He praised the example set by the Orlando VA Medical Center Lake Nona campus.

“You’ve got Johnson & Johnson, you’ve got the VA, you’ve got the UCF (University of Central Florida) medical school all working together to bring state of art medical innovation to central Florida,” McDonald said.

His other keys to ending veteran homelessness are providing veterans with “wrap-around” services like health care and housing.

Before leaving Tampa, McDonald promised to find the Tampa/Hillsborough coalition more HUD vouchers, although he didn’t know how many, to pay for additional housing so Hillsborough can reach “functional zero” homeless veterans in the near future.

“We talked about Veterans Day would be a great celebration,” McDonald said. “We think that would be a great day to celebrate it and we’re close.”

Nationally, the number of homeless veterans has dropped nearly 50 percent since 2010 when the “Opening Doors” initiative started.