Homes For The Brave: Obstacles And Outreach For Homeless Veterans In Metro Phoenix
At the end of 2013, former Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton proclaimed the end of chronic veteran homelessness in the city on national TV.
“So, right now in the city of Phoenix, we have zero chronically homeless veterans on the street,” he said.
His announcement was the culmination of a program that placed 222 veterans who had been homeless for over a year or had experienced homelessness at least four times in the previous three years into city housing.
But, five years later, the program is no longer active and the city no longer keeps information on whether those veterans have transitioned to independent housing or are once again homeless. Meanwhile, the number of homeless veterans across the Valley has increased.
Those working on the ground have a less-than-rosy view of now Congressman-elect Stanton’s announcement.
“I had people who would call me and say, ‘Hey, we're really glad you guys ended veteran homelessness. You don't need our donations anymore,’” said Terry Araman, director of MANA house, a charity for homeless veterans run by formerly homeless veterans. “And I would just cringe because our facility was always full, the other facilities were always full and we had a steady stream of not just chronically homeless but homeless veterans coming into our communities.”
Advocates for homeless veterans across the Valley point to a myriad of obstacles faced by veterans when they leave the active service, many of which can lead to homelessness. The bureaucratic system of the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) is rigid, and even navigating the web of nonprofits and agencies offering help can be confusing. Add in an affordable housing crisis and fractured access to mental health care and advocates say it’s no wonder the number of homeless veterans has grown in recent years.
Phoenix brought national attention to the issue and used a “housing-first” model for those original 222 veterans.
“The housing first strategy operates on the premise that it is more effective to secure social services for the chronically homeless when they first have the stability of housing” said the 2013 press release. But Araman said the model has some serious oversights.
“We would put a homeless veteran into an apartment someplace where they felt isolated and alone, and if you're out homeless on the street ... you sort of create this sense of family and this sense of community with the people you’re out there with,” he said. “There's more to it than just having a roof over your head.”
The Cycle Of Homelessness
That was certainly the case for Ferrall Fritzbahe.
After leaving the Army in 2012, he said the specific certifications and skills he worked so hard to acquire in the military weren’t relevant to civilian employers. After two tours in Iraq and a series of personal hardships that included his partner’s miscarriage and a divorce, he struggled with substance abuse and found himself homeless.
“I went to the VA and first time they said I wasn't homeless enough, second time they say I wasn't homeless enough,” Fritzbahe said. “Third shot finally like, ‘You're homeless, so we'll help you.’”
He said he spent six years on the street before getting keys to an apartment in Phoenix.
“I had a bed, decorated my restroom everything was nice,” he said. “My rent was paid off for up to six months, and I shouldn't have been able to worry about nothing, but I only lasted five days in that apartment.”
But he said it felt like the walls were closing in on him so he returned to the homelessness encampment where he was living before. There, Ferrall had friends, people who understood his experiences and a clear idea of what each day would bring. He was used to homelessness. In that apartment, he said he felt he was facing the unknown alone.
“I couldn't do it. I just lost it,” he said.
It’s a cycle Arraman has seen time and time and time again.
“I know in my own case if I had to make a choice between having a roof over my head or having my sense of community, I would choose being a part of a community,” he said.
Marchelle Franklin, who leads the city’s Human Services Department, said she wasn’t aware of the criticisms of the “housing first” model, but said the city continues to try and identify veterans who need help.
“Our outreach is very much focused on how do you provide wraparound services, helping individuals to feel if they've got a navigator... or someone to help them go through the process,” she said.
The city tasks such outreach to Community Bridges Incorporated, a nonprofit that helps people struggling with chronic homelessness and mental illnesses. In September, they helped Fritzbahe secure keys to a new apartment, this time at Victory Place, an apartment complex specifically for veterans who have experienced homelessness.
As two Community Bridges Employees helped Fitzbahe carry up his backpack and a small bag of groceries up to his new room he remarked about his excitement to be surrounded by like-minded people.
“I've just signed up actually with the Veterans of Foreign Wars — they were looking for volunteers,” he said. “To stay involved in the veteran community is an environment where the body can heal itself.”
The ‘Coordinated Entry’ System
Community Bridges Inc., MANA House and the city of Phoenix, along with 21 other agencies, nonprofits and organizations that provide services to homeless veterans in Arizona recently came together under a system known as “coordinated entry.”
Anne Marie Johnston, manager of housing and community integration at Community Bridges, Incorporated said before coordinated entry nobody was working together.
“Everyone was doing their own thing,” she said.
It’s a small change that multiple people who work in the field said has revolutionized how they provide services to homeless veterans.
“We have finally said, ‘Listen, this is a community problem. We need to solve it as a community.’ And the only way to do that is to get everybody to the table,” Johnston said.
The magic of coordinated entry is basically just a giant spreadsheet.
“We have everything from first date they've reported experiencing homelessness, VA eligibility status, who conducted their intake so that way we can follow up with their case manager, how long they've been on our list, the most recent service contact and where that was and then we also have a space and capacity to add just qualitative notes that might pertain to that individual circumstance,” said Andy Wambach, the regional lead for the coordinated entry system.
“So, the idea behind that is to actually have you know real time data on all of our individuals experiencing homelessness in our community and what that allows us to do is then prioritize individuals based on length of time homelessness and a number of other factors,” he said.
Once a week the 24 agencies, nonprofits and organizations sit down with that list and dole out responsibilities and resources. Johnston recently walked away from one such meeting with a list of homeless veterans her team needs to find.
So, on a bright September morning, Johnston and Dawn Lynn Downes-Bunney, who’s known as a veteran connection navigator, get into their car and start the search for a veteran named John.
Avoiding Police Involvement
“We’re told, ‘Last known location is so-and-so corner. Go find him’,” said Downes-Bunney
“Sometimes we just have a description,” Johnston said. They’re told John has a black shirt and a black and white pitbull.
“So, this is it,” said Johnston. “Driving around parking lots, corner to corner.”
After a couple of minutes Downes-Bunney spots a man with a black t-shirt and black and white dog standing in front of a Verizon store. He’s a few steps removed from a small group of people talking animatedly. Downes-Bunney swings her car around and rolls down the window.
“John! Hi! My names Dawn I’m with Vet Connection,” she calls and a thin man with wiry, strawberry blonde hair and a goatee walks over but declines to shake her hand.
“It’s broken,” he said.
“Your hand’s broke?” Johnston said from the passenger's seat as she leans over the center console.
But John doesn't answer and instead gestures to the group assembled under the awning of the Verizon store.
“We’re homeless and we’re actually getting run off so …” he said.
“Right now?!” said Downes-Bunney as she unbuckles her seat belt. John explains the owner of the Verizon store is getting ready to call the police.
Downes-Bunney ushers John, and his pitbull, “Moo-Moo,” into the car. She and Johnston approach the group, and after a tense conversation, the owner of the Verizon store shakes Downes-Bunney’s hand and puts away his phone. As they talk the rest of the group gathers a few bags, an infant car seat and a bucket and walks down the sidewalk, around a corner, and out of sight.
When Downes-Bunney and Johnston get back into the car, they tread lightly.
“I guess they're basically saying they dont want you guys over here anymore because people are showering in the bucket and, um, you know, they're trying to run a business ...” Johnston trails off.
John said he doesn't know the homeless woman who was bathing in the parking lot. He said he only got involved because if the police show up, they’ll clear out everyone from the area. While talking, he keeps looking over his shoulder to check on a shopping basket parked behind a bush. It’s piled high with clothes, blankets, water and bags of dog food.
John has been staying on this corner for months. He said he has a good relationship with employees in the shopping mall, who give him water or let him use the restroom. Most importantly, he knows of a nearby alley where he can safely sleep.
John, Downes-Bunney and Johnston are all anxious to keep the police away from this situation while they start the long process of finding him housing. That process starts in Downes-Bunney’s car, sorting through a few pieces of paper on a clipboard.
Since John is in the coordinated entry system, he’s already spoken to someone at the Veterans Association who is pushing through paperwork to change John’s eligibility status.
“It should have been a different discharge so then its kinda tied him up are far as getting services so he should be entitled to benefits and getting housing,” Downes-Bunney told Johnston.
“So he should be VA eligible?” Johnston asks.
Downes-Bunney confirms, but warns it will probably take about four months to reach a resolution.
Next to driving up and down city streets looking for homeless veterans, getting “document ready” takes up the most of Downes-Bunney’s time.
“You have to get a driver's license and most of them don't have documentation to get that ID,” she said.
“Even for the Social Security card you have to have a hard copy of your ID you can't have a paper copy of your ID and that takes time to come in,” chimes in Johnston, who was a veteran navigator for years before taking a management position at Community Bridges Incorporated.
“Sometimes by the time we order the social security card they've lost the copy of their ID already,” Johnston continues. “And then we can't find them so the process is over and over and over.”
That’s why Downes-Bunney and Johnston keep checking with John about the best places to find him if he has to leave the corner where he’s currently staying. Even waiting a couple of days could hold up applications for grants, housing vouchers or other services.
In the past, Downes-Bunney said she would be solely responsible for finding John, but with Coordinated Entry if he checks in with another homeless shelter or state agency working on homelessness, Downes-Bunney will be contacted and she can update his location in the excel spreadsheet.
In the first six months of this year, 998 veterans were placed in housing through this process. This is the first time this all efforts across the private and public sector were tabulated so there’s no comparable number.
Although it took about two years to get nonprofits and local governments “out of their silos,” Wamback said the last year has been nearly seamless.
“It's just that we feel we finally sort of figured it out and have better data to report on it,” he said.
And multiple charity employees pointed to Coordinated Entry as the missing piece in making donations and government grants go further than they did before.
Collecting and understanding such data is a key issue for Col. Wanda Wright, Arizona Department of Veterans' Services director.
“If in 2020 I have that I will feel very, very good about having met that goal,” Wright said. “In each of the 15 counties in the state that would be a wonderful thing if I knew exactly how each housing coalition worked in each county.”
‘A Drastic Undercount’
It’s difficult to pin down how many homeless veterans are in each county. Every year Maricopa County conducts a point-in-time count of all people staying on the streets or in homeless shelters on a single night.
That number shows the number of homeless veterans has creeped up in the past five years, with a slight drop in 2018. But many advocates say the point-in-time count should only be used as a jumping off point, not as hard data.
“It’s a drastic undercount,” said Arraman. He points to what workers in the field call “the invisible homeless” — those living in their cars, couchsurfing or camping in the woods.
Both Wright and Araman say there are reasons why these people avoid going to a homeless shelter or admitting they’re homeless.
“My generation — the Vietnam generation — tends to be suspicious sometimes of organizations and facility that purport to give them help and support because many of us are treated very badly when we came back from Vietnam,” he said.
He’s also worked with veterans who resent losing their sense of independence.
“If you're experiencing homelessness, it's already a blow to your self-esteem. And then if you walk in and you have somebody sort of treat you like you're a child it makes it even worse,” he said.
Araman said that was more of a problem a decade ago. Now there’s more veterans and formerly homeless veterans working in the field and a deeper understanding about how to best aid veterans in escaping the cycle of homelessness that the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development estimated leaves 40,056 veterans sleeping on streets across the country.
But Wright doubts the number will ever be zero.
“There are veterans who choose to live on the street so we invite them to come and get the resources they need,” she said.
The issue of veterans refusing housing is something the city of Phoenix also pointed to as a barrier.
“You'll find sometimes there's eight, nine, 10 touches it takes to build trust with individuals who have been experiencing homelessness,” Franklin said.
And each of these “touches” — conversations with a city worker and a veteran experiencing homelessness — can reveal a new challenge.
“You have individuals who have significant others or are married, we don't have shelter for couples, so that becomes another dynamic,” she said. “And then if you have personal possessions that are in a cardboard box or your car even, 99 percent of the time you can’t bring that into the shelter with you.”
Pets can also pose a challenge for those trying to connect someone experiencing homelessness with a shelter.
“If you're asking them to go into shelter to get services but you can't bring your pet with you they choose not to want to part with their pet,” Franklin said.
That's the case with John. Downes-Bunney offered John a place to stay that same night, and said Moo-Moo would stay in a doggy day care until they find John a more permanent housing situation.
“I wouldn't trust it,” he immediately interjects.
Downes-Bunney and Johnston don’t push it.
“Does she have her shots and stuff?” Johnston asked.
“I don’t think I was able to get her her shots when she was a puppy, but obviously I’ve taken good care of her,” John said.
Downes-Bunney, Johnston and John start setting up a timeline to take Moo-Moo to a veterinarian and then to the Phoenix VA to secure a service companion letter.
“Then she can legally go with you anywhere,” Johnston said while reaching behind her seat to scratch Moo-Moo’s head as she lays on Johns lap.
“Because that's what we both need,” John said.
A Mistrust Of The System
Although John said he trusts Downes-Bunney and Johnston to follow through on their promises, he feels he’s been hitting his head up against a bureaucratic wall for years.
“I'm going through this crap the next one who walks in the door might just slide right the hell though,” he said.
His statements reflect a general mistrust in the system. Recently, the Phoenix VA received one out of five stars in it’s end of fiscal year rating.
Officials say the hospital has shown improvement, but patient perception was low.
"Perception is 28 percent of our overall score and the perception of our hospital is still low and so it really drags us down," spokesperson Cindy Dorfner told KJZZ in October.
Phoenix was “ground zero” of the VA scandal, and Araman said wait times are still a problem, especially when providing mental health care.
“So, if you're at a mental health crisis and you go over to the VA and they say, ‘OK, we can give you an appointment four months out.’ That just doesn't work,” Araman said.
“That simply isn’t true,” said Dorfner in an email Wednesday.
She points to data that shows booking a first appointment to address a mental health concern can take on average three to 22 days, depending on the clinic.
“If someone calls in and they are in crisis, we will do a warm hand-off with the crisis line as they have resources to get someone to them immediately,” she said in an email. “We are notified of all calls to the crisis line and we reach out to those Veterans for follow-up care.”
A greater strain on resources is something Araman worries about as the number of active service members shrink. He said those still serving are called on to do more and a greater number of active service members are entering civilian life and taking advantage of VA benefits.
“A lot of the veterans that are coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan have done extended tours of duty and multiple tours of duty,” he said. “We could have another wave of homelessness and we need to help these people now because they get to the point where they’re out of the street for a couple of decades and considered chronically homeless.”
Not all veterans are critical of the VA. Ken Wilson, who served as a combat medic in the Army from 1977-89, has nothing but praise for the VA and the Phoenix MANA house shelter where he’s currently living.
“We have meals provided,” he said. “We have other veterans that are here so you have someone to talk to and relate with.”
In July, Wilson had a major stroke. Although he said he’s still struggling to “learn how to do things all over again,” he likes his doctors and physical therapists at the VA.
While he undergoes therapy, he had to stop working and couldn’t pay rent. He said the VA connected him to MANA house before he had to spend a single night without a roof over his head.
“I had a case worker that they assigned to me and we decided it would be best for me to come here, recover and get some assistance,” he said.
He plans to start applying to jobs as soon as possible and don’t anticipate he’ll ever have to stay in a shelter again.
“But I’ve seen some veterans that moved into places that they probably didn't look down the road to see if they could afford once the assistance ended,” he said. “And they even end up coming back here or end up back homeless.”
And all veterans — whether they struggle with PTSD or substance abuse, are distrustful of the system or don’t want to separate from a pet — are made more vulnerable to homelessness by the lack of affordable housing. It’s even evident in Wilson’s case: he was only one missed paycheck from living on the streets.
The Arizona Department of Affairs has specific programs for those facing immediate eviction and Wright and Franklin said they’re both focused on expanding housing options.
“There is very little affordable housing in Maricopa County."
— Col. Wanda Wright, Department of Veterans' Services
“There is very little affordable housing in Maricopa County,” Wright said.
The main way the government subsidizes housing for veterans is through Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing vouchers from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. But Wright says these HUD VASH vouchers only go so far.
“If we used to be able afford to live downtown for $1,500, a HUD vash voucher would allow you to do that,” she said. “Now they've jumped up so high that $1,500 voucher no longer works downtown.”
“Therefore there's a uptick in homelessness,” she said.
In 2019, the VA’s budget topped $200 billion for the first time, and it's 2020 budget is expected to be even bigger. After passing congress with bipartisan support in June, President Donald Trump recently the VA Mission Act into law. The legislation focuses on modernizing internal processes and access to healthcare. Advocates in Arizona made multiple mentions of their hopes that the law will help streamline the VA in a similar way Coordinated Entry helped them streamline their efforts.
For John, a veteran spending every day on the street, he said he can’t spend his days fretting about federal budgets or housing policies. But he does know one change that would vastly improve his day-to-day.
“Just look me in the eye,” he said. “Don’t come here and talk down on me cause I struggle.”
“If I had known I’d be treated like this when I took the uniform off I probably would have never put it on,” he said as his friend, who is also homeless, knocked on Downes-Bunney’s car window to ask for a bottle of water.