Housing for Vets
New York City makes gains helping vets into housing

Around 2,000 veterans are homeless in New York City, according to the city Department of Homeless Services (DHS). Community housing providers for homeless veterans such as the Jericho Project and New Era Veterans estimate the number to be closer to 3,500.

Most are older, single men from disadvantaged backgrounds, and many served during the Vietnam-era. About 64 percent of the homeless veterans in the city’s shelter system are African-American, compared to roughly 15 percent who are white or Hispanic, and three percent listed as other, according to the DHS.

A growing number are veterans just back from the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, struggling to find employment and to cope with the psychological toll of their service.

The 1,989 veterans in the city’s shelter system in 2009 represents a significant reduction since the city began Operation Home, a joint Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and DHS partnership tasked with ending veteran homelessness in New York City. When the initiative started in 2007, the city saw 2,525 homeless veterans, according to DHS data.

“The Mayor and I have committed,” said DHS Commissioner Robert Hess, “to do our best to eliminate the need for any veteran to sleep on our streets and to sleep in our shelter system.”

The spearhead of the initiative is a new centralized intake center for homeless vets called Project Torch, run jointly by the VA and DHS.

Project Torch helped more than 2,300 homeless veterans move into permanent housing since 2007, with around 600 placed in 2009, according to DHS.

Also in 2007, the federal government created a program to issue subsidized housing vouchers to homeless veterans through the Department of Housing and Urban Development and pair the vouchers with case management and services by the VA, called HUD-Veterans Affairs Supported Housing (HUD-VASH). The vouchers, also known as Section 8’s, can subsidize between 30 and 80 percent of a person’s rent.

HUD-VASH vouchers were used to assist at least 400 of the veterans moved from city shelters and short-term housing to their own apartments. Congress has issued 20,000 vouchers to date and New York City has used up more than 650 of the 1,100 vouchers it was allocated.

“There is certainly a need for the HUD-VASH vouchers,” said Commissioner Hess. “It is a very important resource, but so far New York has received its fair share.”

The city is likely to be allocated more vouchers in the next month, when the VA announces this year’s distribution.

While the city has helped thousands of veterans into permanent housing, it has also drastically reduced the number of veterans living in the city’s shelters.

The bulk of this reduction came by moving veterans from men’s shelters to the newly renovated veteran specific Borden Ave. residence in Long Island City, Queens, which the city labels as short-term housing.

Formerly a veterans-only shelter run by the Salvation Army, the Borden Ave residence was taken over by the city in 2007 and its 500 or so beds were converted into 243 small, individual cubicles.

In 2007, the city’s emergency shelters housed around 750 veterans on a given night. Now that number is 292, a 62 percent reduction, according to DHS. But some 371 veterans are housed in short-term housing, resulting in a total of 663 veterans living in housing run by DHS.

Despite these initiatives, critics still say that the government’s efforts continue to be under-funded and are not targeted at the newer generation of homeless veterans and their families.

“There are minimal advances,” said Jason Ortiz, Intake Coordinator at the New Era Vets veterans residence in the Bronx. “But outside of HUD-VASH, where’s the veteran-specific housing? You’re still looking at under 500 rooms for God knows how many homeless veterans.” 

There are a number of existing supportive housing residences for veterans in New York City, and a number under construction. These facilities are discussed in the section called Supportive Housing.

Data by DHS and the VA shows a decline in the number of homeless veterans seeking their services. But more than half-a-dozen community organizations that provide housing to homeless veterans did not report a decline in veterans seeking assistance, and all noted an increase in young Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, including women.

An increasing number of female veterans--sometimes mothers with children--have become homeless, a trend due to a large degree to women’s increased participation in the Armed Forces since the early 1990’s, according to DHS figures and interviews with community housing providers.

Few housing assistance programs are geared directly toward women veterans or families, and no facility exists in New York specifically tailored for female veterans. However, the city does have 20 beds set aside specifically for women veterans at the Borden Ave residence.

“Since we’ve created those beds I don’t think we’ve ever been at capacity,” said Hess. “As we continue to see, sadly, more female veterans experience homelessness we will add capacity if we need to.”

But while DHS continues to have success moving veterans out of the city’s shelters, many community-based organizations that provide housing for veterans have few, if any, extra beds available.

“I’m at full capacity,” said Ortiz. “I can’t fit not one more person in this building, but there’s another homeless veteran sleeping in a shelter, and sadly enough, with their child.”

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