Berke: Veterans need housing support now more than ever

Berke: Veterans need housing support now more than ever

January 3rd, 2018 by Andy Berke in Opinion Columns

Right before Thanksgiving, I was downtown when I was approached by a man named Chris. He was a veteran who had served our country in the armed forces but had experienced homelessness. He told me that our veterans homeless coalition had helped him move in an apartment only a few days before.

This year, he said, he was giving thanks to spend the holidays in a place he could call his own.

Four and a half years ago, our homeless veteran population had reached crisis proportions. For so many individuals who had served and sacrificed selflessly to be sleeping on the streets, in garages and in their cars, was wrong. Our city had to do something.

We went to work. We created partnerships with homeless agencies, veterans groups and others to help those individuals obtain stable housing, and we worked closely with them throughout the transition. It wasn't easy, but we had some incredible partners and made great progress, one veteran at a time. By February 2017, Chattanooga was recognized by the White House's Interagency Council on Homelessness for having effectively ended veteran homelessness in Chattanooga.

Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke

Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke

Photo by Doug Strickland /Times Free Press.

One critical component of this work has been the federal government itself. As we housed more than 240 veterans, the U.S. Department of Housing and Development (HUD) provided vouchers that local authorities could use for this purpose.

Chattanooga's homeless population will not improve until they have a stable foundation — a place to live. Once we get them off the streets, we have a more secure way to assist them in other parts of their lives, such as job training, addiction treatment or mental health services. Specific vouchers for individuals experiencing homeless were especially helpful in this process.

Unfortunately, we were notified over the summer that HUD would not be issuing any further vouchers to local authorities. Chattanooga's homeless agencies — already facing more demand than we could accommodate — suddenly found themselves without a basic tool that we needed to help build stronger lives for our homeless veterans. The program had helped dozens of veterans in Chattanooga and thousands across the country in the last several years. HUD gave no reason for this unexpected and unexplained freeze.

We have received some limited support from the Department of Veterans Affairs, but not nearly enough to adequately address the problem.

After six months of the voucher freeze, as we head into the truly cold months of winter, the results of HUD's decision are painfully evident:

We again have homeless veterans in our community. Less than a year ago, we effectively had none. This is appalling.

Our partners at homeless agencies are among the most dedicated and creative servants in our community, wholly focused on helping us eliminate homelessness among veterans. We've done it before, and we can do it again, but not without the participation of HUD and the VA.

It's getting colder in Chattanooga and across America. Now more than ever, the men and women who have served this country need our support.

It's time for HUD to unfreeze the resources that would help them the most.

Andy Berke is the mayor of Chattanooga.

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