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The D.C. Interagency Council on Homelessness this week approved its winter plan to shelter homeless residents during the cold months to come as Mayor Muriel Bowser announced a year-round expansion of services to families.

This year’s plan is a huge step forward for the District, both in terms of data collection and realistic preparation for the number of single adults and families expected to seek shelter this winter. It’s a hopeful sign that D.C. won’t repeat the mistakes of last year—or the year before that.

As D.C. begins to get a better grasp on how to provide adequate shelter both year-round and during the winter, it’s also closing in on its goal to “end” veteran homelessness by December. This doesn’t mean the number of homeless veterans in D.C. will reach zero. Rather, the District is working on right-sizing its system to have an adequate number of year-round shelter beds for veterans and expediting the way these men, women, and families are assessed and connected with permanent housing.

“We’re all hands on deck and really moving on every front,” says ICH Executive Director Kristy Greenwalt. “With everything in this process, we’ve been really using our data to drive how we’re proceeding.”

Kurt Runge of Miriam’s Kitchen, one of the leading partners in the government-nonprofit Veterans NOW! coalition, says the resources are there to reach the goal. “This is the one area on the federal side [where] the funding has been there,” he says.

The coordinated entry process allows the District and its partners—from agencies like the D.C. Department of Human Services to nonprofits like the Community Partnership to End Homelessness—to enter client information into a central, by-name registry so veterans can be assessed and matched with housing resources. (On average, about 55 veterans enter the system per month.) Matching meetings are held twice a week to review the list of veterans still in need of housing, and a strategy team meets every other week.

“In the past, there was no systematic approach,” says Greenwalt. “We’re in a very different place now, so we can actually track what’s happening and why.”

“It sounds like a simple thing,” says Runge of the entry process, “but we didn’t really have it before.”

Before veterans can be connected with housing, they have to be assessed. As of July 28, 75 of the 328 veterans in low-barrier shelters and transitional housing were without assessment. One of the difficulties is pinning down a veteran staying in low-barrier shelter, which is open only from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m.

“Often, it’s just not the right time. People aren’t interested often,” Greenwalt says. “They’ve been assessed to death over the years, and they’ve done so many assessments and it hasn’t led anywhere, because historically there haven’t been those housing resources.”

After assessment, D.C. has been working to expedite the process of identifying and matching veterans with housing. The city aims to exit 68 veterans from shelter per month, a goal that it at-times exceeded during the spring and early summer: 110 in April, 67 in May, and 76 in June, 52 in July.

“In an expensive and tight housing market like the District, if they’re not receiving a lot of hands-on assistance to find the unit and make it through the process—particularly given that some of our clients may have credit and criminal issues in their background—they may need some more assistance navigating the market,” Greenwalt says.

They’ve found success by partnering with the D.C. Housing Authority to hold meet-and-lease events, where pre-inspected units are shown to veterans and sometimes rented on the spot. One was held earlier this month, and three more are planned for the year.

Another piece is right-sizing D.C.’s inventory of transitional housing. Part of ending veteran homelessness is setting a “functional zero,” meaning the number of transitional beds available matches the number of people in need. (People in transitional housing are considered homeless.) In D.C., that number is 160.

Ideally, instead of having veterans stay for six to 12 months in transitional housing, D.C. will use these beds on more of a short-term, crisis basis and help veterans exit shelter within 30 to 60 days. But currently, most of D.C.’s transitional beds for veterans are funded by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, and local providers are paid on a per-diem basis, meaning a bed must be filled for the provider to be paid.

“It’s hard for communities to figure out how we get to functional zero when we have these transitional beds and the federal law doesn’t allow us to anything differently with them,” Greenwalt says.

D.C. has met with federal partners to strategize how to better use these beds, making it one of the first jurisdictions in the country to tackle the problem; the feds have also helped D.C. make needed connections, she says, “like help us make those asks for units or jobs, or for the flexible funds that we need to help fill gaps.”

The willingness is there to end veteran homelessness. But after D.C. reaches the goal, it will have to stick with and improve the system agencies and nonprofits have put in place.

“It’s not a sprint to a finish and we’re done in December,” Greenwalt says. “We’ve had to work through this backlog of folks. They’re needs have been unaddressed for so long.”

Photo by Darrow Montgomery