Surrounded by beautiful mountains and rich Sonoran Desert vegetation and temperate weather from fall to spring, Tucson, Arizona has become an ideal place to settle down. As such, Tucson is also one of the nation’s 25 cities with the highest concentration of homeless Veterans. Federal funds are available through local Supportive Services for Veteran Families (SSVF) grantees to help prevent Veterans and their families from becoming homeless who may be facing eviction. But others need more long-term help with permanent housing. Southern Arizona Veterans Affairs Health Care System (SAVAHCS) has increased its efforts to fulfill President Obama’s Initiative to end Veteran homelessness by the end of 2015. Our Housing and Urban Development (HUD) VA Supported Housing (VASH) Program is the cornerstone of this initiative providing Section 8 housing vouchers along with VA case management to our homeless Veterans and their families to help ensure they successfully maintain independent housing.
SAVAHCS has a Homeless Clinic for Homeless Veterans (HCHV) located in the west end of Building 90 with an entrance from 6th Avenue near the city bus stop. There is a bridge, which allows Veterans to easily access the bus stop on foot. HCHV Social Workers are available to meet with homeless Veterans Monday-Friday from 8:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. on a walk-in basis to help connect them with immediate and long-term housing supports including HUD-VASH and other resources needed to improve the quality of their lives. The clinic has showers, toiletries, washers and dryers, a clothing room and food boxes.
In addition, HCHV employees have increased their collaborations with community agencies through participation in 51 homes: this is a partnership of Vets and Tucson Pima Collaboration to end Homelessness (TPCH), to help broaden and coordinate Veteran resources and to increase public awareness of VA services including housing.
The target homeless populations for HUD-VASH are those Veterans who have been chronically homeless and/or are the most vulnerable. Some of the chronically homeless Veterans have not lived in housing for many years and may have a lack of trust for VA services including housing. Our Outreach Team meets with Veterans where they live which includes meeting them in the desert, washes, streets and shelters. Using the Veteran-centered care approach, we meet the Veteran where they are and help connect them with the needed resources to achieve the goals they want to accomplish. Using a Housing First Model, we get Veterans into housing first without requiring sobriety, medication compliance or any other terms. From that place of security, Veterans are then in a position to consider making improvements in other areas of their life such as medical and mental health, substance use, income and employment, legal issues and natural supports.
For some of the chronically homeless, there is a transition period once they are housed before they fully let go of their former lifestyle. For some, it seems too good to be true that their housing will continue, and they need time to trust that their home will still be there for them. One Veteran set his tent up in his living room for many months preferring to sleep there instead of the bedroom. Some of them will continue to sleep in the desert a few nights even after they are housed. One Veteran who had lived in his van for many years slept in his van in his new apartment parking lot until he trusted that he would keep his housing and finally let go and sold the van.
Army Vietnam Veteran, Richard Daniel, has recently been housed through HUD-VASH after 20 years of living outside in Tucson. He had been offered housing before but finally felt it was time. He reflects on his new place of two months, which was furnished by community donations, “I love to read, and I can lie in bed with my reading lamp on and read to my heart’s content. My favorite part of the apartment is the ability to lock my door. I enjoy the security that when I lock my door, this is my house.” He feels the VA hires qualified professionals as Case Managers who are available to help him with his goals. Now that he is housed, his next big steps are to get an Arizona ID, a bank account and a bicycle and “learn every bike trail in this town.” He is now able to plan beyond mere survival. Richard also speaks to homeless Veterans to let them know that they too can take advantage of this opportunity.
Most of us take for granted the security and peace of mind that our home provides. Richard reminds us of the profound impact housing has on our well-being, “You don’t realize the weight that is on your shoulders until it is taken off.”