On Monday, Mayor Annise Parker announced that the city of Houston had “effectively ended” veteran homelessness. That statement is effectively false.
“It’s like when Bush said the war was over,” said Oskar Gonzalez, an Iraq war veteran and the outreach coordinator at Midtown Terrace Suites, a shelter and service provider for homeless veterans. “People think we’re done here. But the war is not over until every troop comes home, and veteran homelessness is not over until every veteran is off the street.”
Gonzalez said there are currently 72 homeless veterans living in Midtown Terrace’s transitional housing complex — a repurposed Days Inn on Main Street in the shadow of the Southwest Freeway. All 72 are currently without a permanent home, and thus qualify as homeless.
So if there are still homeless veterans in Houston, what was the mayor talking about when she said veteran homelessness is over and done with?
“When we say we have effectively ended veteran homelessness, that means we have housing resources available for every homeless veteran,” said Mandy Chapman Semple, special assistant to the mayor for homeless initiatives. “We have built a system that can or has already housed every individual homeless veteran. But every given moment, you could find a homeless vet in our city. The reality is it just takes time from when we find them to when we move them into an apartment.”
In a press release, the city said it has housed more than 3,650 homeless veterans since 2012. Semple said veterans were typically housed through HUD-subsidized vouchers that partially cover a homeless veteran’s rent. She said that the city has 1,200 vouchers available and there is no waiting list.
But that does not mean homeless veterans will go straight from the street into a subsidized apartment.
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“We certainly have enough housing vouchers, but it’s not realistic to say that vets have housing immediately after they are identified,” said Cheryl Cabusas, a licensed social worker with United States Veterans Initiative who works at Midtown Terrace. “It doesn’t take into account the reintegration period, the apartment search, the paperwork, the waiting.”
Gonzalez said his biggest concern following the city’s statement is that it will lead people to believe veteran homelessness is no longer a problem, which could slow federal funding and private donations for places like Midtown Terraces down to a trickle.
“We used to get pre-packaged food from the Houston Food Bank,” Gonzalez said in Midtown Terrace’s big, well-lit dining hall, which has a TV and a pool table and serves three meals a day to its clients. “It was disgusting, sometimes even moldy. Then we got enough private donations to make sure the food was freshly cooked right here, and we saw a huge morale boost after that. If people start to pull their funding, we’ll lose resources like this.”
According to Cabusas, Midtown Terrace’s transitional housing program is operating at 96 percent capacity. Combine that with the whopping 1,123 homeless veterans Gonzalez said he has found so far this year in his outreach program, and it’s clear that the city still has a long way to go before it truly ends veteran homelessness.