From Service to Homeless

A veteran’s homeless project has helped Tucson vets get better care, but figuring out a system that fits everyone can be a challenge

In 30 days, Abbie Lenhardt will probably be back on the streets, homeless once again, a way of life she's known on and off for the past 26 years.

Now living at Tucson House, a public housing program operated by the city off North Oracle Road, 44-year-old Lenhardt had just celebrated her first year there and signed a second year lease.

"I've been homeless on and off since I was 18," she says. "But the last five years I've been in Tucson and I think I've adapted rather well."

Lenhardt adapted so well to living on the streets that housing was a challenge that came with a barrage of rules that weren't always easy on the U.S. Marine Corps veteran. In public housing you are only allowed visitors a certain number of times a year, and you are watched more closely—is your space clean enough, are you still dressing as if you are still homeless, and do you still hang out with homeless people.

Issues began to build up until she finally received her eviction notice, and while Lenhardt isn't happy about losing the roof over her head, she's also not scared about returning to Tucson's streets because that's where the people closest to her live.

On Saturdays, the Hope of Glory Center, a ministry that offers shelter and meals, offers a lunch on the west side of the Joel D. Valdez Main Library downtown. In the small crowd of homeless who gather to get a meal this recent overcast summer day, Lenhardt stands with her son, who is homeless, and her friend Tim Kohler—everyone eating salad and pizza off paper plates, laughing and talking during the meal.

At the end of the ministry's outreach everyone starts gathering belongings, putting heavy backpacks on their shoulders, filling shopping carts and talking about where they are going to do next to get out of what will be a hot muggy monsoon day.

Lenhardt can return to her apartment at Tucson House, albeit temporarily, but this is what she returns to at the end of her 30-day eviction. Part of the reason she has a place to live is due to a program that makes finding housing for veterans a priority, but like other chronically homeless vets, staying in that housing can be a challenge.

A citywide initiative to house all homeless veterans started in 2013 as part of a national project launched by the Obama administration. Tucson Mayor Jonathan Rothschild says that while the initial goal was to find housing for all homeless veterans in 25 cities across the country, it became clear that solving this issue wasn't going to happen easily.

Rothschild says there are two populations of veteran homeless—those who fought in Vietnam and those who've returned from fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. One group has been in the streets for more than 30 years.

"We told them, 'Look you are elderly now. You are vulnerable. It's time to come home,'" he says.

The younger group suffers from brain injuries and there are more women in this group then those who served in Vietnam, which has its own particular set of challenges.

The city, working with a group of social service agencies in Tucson and the Department of Veterans Affairs, set a goal to house 1,625 vets.

"But we exceeded that goal and now house more than 1,750 vets and we have the capacity to house more veterans," Rothschild says.

The largest benefit in tackling veteran homelessness is that it forced the City of Tucson to bring resources together. It was the first time, Rothschild says. "It always comes back to resources. We have many in Tucson, and now they work together because we embraced this project.

There are vets who continue to struggle even when in housing and some like Lenhardt find themselves back on the streets. That, according to Rothschild, is now averaging around 45 veterans a month.

"We are seeing a lot of PTSD and some substance abuse issues and some general mental illness issues. That's contributed to some of that fall out, but now we have data on all veterans on the street—name, date of birth, locations of where they stay or get together. That helps," Rothschild says.

"Now agencies do case conferencing every two weeks, looking at that list and updating that list. With all housing authorities now getting together, too, there's an effort to identify those who need housing and where available housing is," he says

Not all housing that's been identified for vets in permanent. Some is transitional, allowing veterans to have a bed, until permanent housing is secured.

But, as Rothschild says, it goes back to resources. Those who are chronically homeless fighting the demons of substance abuse or mental illness may find themselves in housing, but not able to keep it based on a difficulty of being in a group setting and off the streets after being homeless for years.

"You have to treat the symptoms because it's hard to keep a person in a house when they face these other issues," Rothschild says. "That's what we need to work on next."

If that's what's next, Lenhardt and her friends say it might be a good idea to look at the current model in homeless services and what might not be working. Lenhardt, who receives only $195 in food stamps each month, says it's difficult to get used to life off the streets. Buying cleaning supplies is financially difficult, and relearning how to keep a home is a bigger challenge than some realize. But what's also difficult is creating community supports, when all the supports you've had are those who remain in the homeless community.

"Even being told to stop dressing like a homeless person makes no sense. I think I'm doing pretty well and I keep clean. Tucson is one of the easiest places to live. If you go hungry or do not have clean clothes, then it's your own fault," Lenhardt says.

"I'm prepared to go back on the streets. I'll have to find a place to store my stuff ... memories. There isn't anything like that out there for homeless people."

Linda Kot, program manager for Primavera's Project Action for Veterans, is hopeful someone like Lenhardt will be reissued a housing voucher to have her return to housing—perhaps this time with additional supports that aren't always available in permanent housing program like Tucson House.

The project is going into it's fifth year and as of last week has served 873 households. Each household must have a veteran. In total, the project has served 1,407 individuals with a 90 percent retention—meaning those who stay in housing.

"We have a goal to help 250 household this year and so far we have 185 of that goal who've now been served," Kot says.

Housing first is her priority, and that means the project has to work with other agencies in town and a group of property managers in the community who have their client's best interests in mind. "To sustain that housing we work other issue like employment and medical, as well as deposite and applications fees that can make sure a person is supported for three to six months while they get on their feet."

The project also helps with fees related to education certification, as well as childcare and bus passes. If a veteran has a car they need, the project can help with up to $1,500 in repairs. "Most of the that time that's meant tires. Those are usually the last on the list when people don't have enough money to maintain their cars," Kot says.

Organizations like Primavera that are working to support and house homeless vets realize that it is impossible to provide housing for everyone—recognizing that substance abuse and mental health issues can prevent some from being chronically homeless.

"It's compounded for veterans because of PTSD and other issues," Kot says.

Those Kot's project works with tend to be easier to service, and those who aren't are referred to other organizations who can provide more case management and supports.

But once someone like Lenhardt received a voucher for housing, it can't be taken away. It means she will likely be referred to a new housing program, perhaps this time with those additional support she may need.

Most of the veterans served in the project tend to be age 45 and up, but once in a while newly returned veterans in their 20s do show up and there is a smaller percentage of women, too.

"It think it's important to recognize how important that mayor's support of housing veterans has been these past few years, but also the community," Kot says. "Especially property managers. We have a couple who go beyond. One is a veteran herself and another, her brother was killed in Vietnam. We can't do this work with out that kind of community support."

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