On the eve of New Year's, when most everyone had shut down their office computers and gone home, the cities of Gulfport and Biloxi sent out a curious news release.
Biloxi Mayor FoFo Gilich and Gulfport Mayor Billy Hewes had just gotten a call from Julian Castro, HUD's top dog in Washington, who congratulated them on their efforts to end homelessness for veterans.
"In fact, Castro moments ago told the mayors and other local housing advocates (that) the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Department of Veterans Affairs and the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness believe that Biloxi and Gulfport have effectively ended homelessness among veterans."
An astounding claim. Difficult, if not impossible, to check out at 3:31 p.m. Dec. 31, when the email hit reporters' inboxes.
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Is it true?
No, homeless advocates say.
What is true is the network for assisting homeless veterans is stronger and better funded than it was five years ago. And the advocacy community for homeless, including the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, has undergone a sea change in approaches to getting and keeping veterans off the streets.
In South Mississippi, 244 veterans were housed between January and November, said Mary Simons, executive director of the nonprofit Open Doors Homeless Coalition, which funds and coordinates homeless services. She estimates resources are available to house 20 veterans a month. The Coast also has fewer veterans who are chronically homeless, which applies to anyone with a "disabling condition" who has been homeless for at least a year, or four times over three years.
Even so, several veterans can be found at most any soup kitchen or cold-weather shelter on the Coast. More drift in monthly.
"There's been a lot of effort put toward housing veterans, and it's made a tremendous impact," said Everett Lewis, executive director of the Gulf Coast Housing Initiative at Back Bay Mission in Biloxi. "To say it's solved, no. I don't know that we will ever get to the point to where there's not a single veteran that's homeless on the street. But the services that are available now, I would say, are probably enough to where, if a veteran seriously seeks housing, there will be some avenue that he or she can pursue to receive housing."
Mayor Hewes said he learned that although the Coast still deals with homeless veterans, fewer are on the streets.
"This is a great milestone as it applies to veterans," Hewes said, "but there's a bigger challenge for us. A lot of it has to do with the funding of mental health" services.
Home at last
Travis Finkley, 72, was one of the Coast's chronically homeless veterans in 2014.
The Biloxi-native Vietnam veteran slept in a sleeping bag under bridges and piers, or wherever else he could find. He kept to himself.
"The hardest part of being homeless is when it rains," he said. "When it rains, everything gets wet."
Finkley remembers exactly how long he served in Vietnam as a combat engineer in the Army: 13 months and three weeks. He was drafted in 1965. He does not talk about the things he saw, the way he had to live or what he did during the war.
He does say he returned from Vietnam a changed man. "I still don't sleep at night," he said. "I sleep in the daytime. I like to be alone. I don't like to be in no crowd."
He was married when he was drafted, but said his wife left after he returned home. A drinking habit picked up in Vietnam eventually destroyed his health.
He quit drinking more than a decade ago, but still has stomach problems caused by alcohol abuse. He also suffers from migraines and anxiety.
"I worked until my stomach gave out on me," he said. "When the doctor told me to stop (drinking), I stopped. I didn't have to go to rehab or nothing."
Finkley lives on a small Social Security check from the years he worked as a laborer after his military service, and a small VA payment. He believes he should be entitled to veterans' benefits for his war service because of the repercussions he has suffered,
"I wasn't wounded over there," he said, "but I was there."
Finkley's days on the street ended after he met Lewis at Back Bay Mission. Lewis found Finkley qualified for housing at HomePort, a six-unit apartment Back Bay started building in East Biloxi in August 2014 with a mix of public and private funding.
"Mr. Finkley was on the streets waiting for an apartment probably six to eight months," Lewis said. Finkley was the first veteran to move in, on Jan. 29, 2015. The apartments and a duplex previously built next door are full, housing veterans with vouchers from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Finkley said the one-bedroom apartment is a blessing. His rent is based on income, so he is able to make ends meet. He no longer has to eat out of a can. He can cook leftover turkey in a pot with tomatoes and a few other ingredients for a meal that will last him three days.
His apartment came furnished, down to the pots and pans. He has added few personal touches. He does have paperback novels stacked on his coffee table, including books by Stephen King and Dan Brown.
The Department of Veterans Affairs assigned Finkley a case manager who helps him stay on track with his doctor appointments and medications.
Still out there
The VA has over the last few years changed its approach to working with the homeless, said Eric Oleson, homeless-program manager for the VA Gulf Coast. The VA is trying to house veterans first, then deal with other issues they might face, whether mental or physical. It's a model called Housing First the nonprofit community pioneered in the 1990s. The VA previously tried to stabilize veterans before housing them.
For example, Oleson said, a drinking problem no longer prevents a veteran from qualifying for housing. Once housed, veterans can get alcohol treatment. If a veteran continues drinking away his money, a case manager sits down with him to work out a budget, encouraging him to pay his bills before spending on alcohol, or find work to cover the cost so he can keep his housing.
The VA is taking a team approach to case management, Oleson said. An employment specialist, occupational therapist, registered nurse and peer-support specialist now work alongside traditional social workers, as does a housing specialist. The peer-support specialist must be a veteran who has personally struggled with a problem such as addiction or homelessness.
Three or four team members, Oleson said, might work with one veteran. In the six South Mississippi counties, the VA now has a staff of 14, Oleson said, compared with five staff members five years ago.
HUD also has provided more housing vouchers, an income-based rental supplement. The VA currently has 172 vouchers for six South Mississippi counties, up from about 120 a few years ago.
Oleson said 95 percent of the vouchers are in use, with the remaining 5 percent assigned to veterans. The VA had set a nationwide goal to have 100 percent of housing vouchers in use or assigned by the end of January.
"We will be able to achieve that goal on the Mississippi Gulf Coast," Oleson said.
The Coast is not guaranteed an increase in HUD vouchers. An overnight count of the homeless, scheduled Jan. 26, will help determine how many vouchers the Coast receives. Oleson said four or five vouchers become available each month as veterans find work and return to independent living.
The other big change at the VA has been in community outreach. The attitude once was the VA should take care of its own, Oleson said, but there has been a realization the VA can't house all its struggling veterans without community assistance and support.
"We're constantly collaborating with all the different homeless providers," Oleson said.
The increased funding and team approach to housing veterans seem to be making a dent. Fewer chronically homeless veterans are on the streets. Four years ago, Oleson said, 75 percent of vouchers went to chronically homeless veterans. In the past year, 40 percent of veterans housed had been chronically homeless, Oleson said.
Still, homelessness among veterans persists. Not all veterans want a home. John Pollick, for example, says after years on the streets, paying bills stressed him out. In October, he gave up a subsidized apartment in Pittsburgh, Pa., where he had lived for three years, paying only $306 a month for utilities and rent. He said he also detested the six annual inspections of his apartment.
"I couldn't take it," said Pollick, 65. "They want to know your business too much."
Pollick's health is giving out on him, though. He's lived on disability for years. He said he has diabetes, gout, emphysema, hypertension and osteoarthiritis. He rides around Gulfport on a motorized medical scooter. An Air Force Vietnam veteran, he claims he's been homeless for the better part of 22 years, traveling to 43 states. He rides his scooter to the Salvation Army cold-weather shelter when it is open and often eats lunch at Feed My Sheep, a soup kitchen just north of downtown Gulfport. He has a camp set up with a tent, propane tank, cooking stove and all the essentials.
"There's some freedom to being homeless," the VA's Oleson said, "but they'll get to that point where they say, 'I just can't do it any more.'"
A veteran of the war in Iraq, John Russelman, said he really wants a job and a place to live. The former Marine found work with an electrician on the Coast after 2005's Hurricane Katrina, but was laid off during the recession.
He served as an infantryman in Iraq with the Mississippi Army National Guard from June 2009 to March 2010. A blood clot in his leg, which required surgery, ended his service in the Guard. He was honorably discharged in October 2013.
Russelman believes assistance is more readily available to veterans with families, or those who suffer from addictions. He said he has never done drugs and does not drink often.
"Everybody knows I need housing since I've been sitting in a tent for two years," Russelman said. "I'm waiting on something to break.
"It's all sporadic and hit or miss. I've been out there two years and they all know it."