CLEVELAND — With local, state, and federal officials urging everyone to keep up social distancing practices, it's more important than ever to have a safe place to call home. But that’s just not the case for many homeless veterans.
A collaborative program between the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs aims to get vets back on their feet and a roof over their heads, and the pandemic is making staff members think outside of the box to get them there.
About two weeks ago, U.S. Marine Corps veteran William Teague got the keys to his new apartment in Cleveland.
“I got a place of my own that I can live and do the things that I need to do to keep living a normal life,” Teague said.
His life was nearly derailed by substance abuse.
“It was taking all of my money. Instead of maintaining the things that I needed to do such as paying rent, buying food, paying the bills,” Teague said.
That’s when he turned to the Louis Stokes VA Medical Center and got involved with the HUD-VASH program.
“We work to house as many homeless veterans as we can as quickly as we can, and then continue to provide them case management based on the goals that they set for themselves,” Barbara Karam, the coordinator, of the HUD-VASH program at the Louis Stokes VA said.
HUD provides housing subsidies for each veteran in the program based on their income. Then, V.A. staff members work with the veterans to find apartments, usually driving them to and from locations and meeting with landlords.
Now, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the program is limiting face to face contact between staff and veterans.
“Since our veterans are homeless, many of them lack transportation. and with the bus systems now being limited as well, that further impacts their ability to go and look at, at apartments,” Karam said.
But VA staffers are finding ways to make it work by facilitating virtual tours with landlords and sending documents the old-fashioned way by fax or the mail.
They’re also trying to fast-track the process because many veterans are temporarily living in VA treatment facilities while they wait for their permanent home.
“We want to make sure that our veterans are safe, and are maintaining a social distancing to the extent that they can, we really needed to focus on quickly housing veterans and so we are working very rapidly to do that,” Karam said.
Since the pandemic started, 28 veterans have found a place to live, including Teague. The staff also got him a bed, household items, and food bag drop-offs to make the transition as easy as possible.
“I feel blessed, I really am blessed because it didn’t have to happen, but it happened,” Teague said.
From October 2019 to April 2020, the HUD-VASH program in Northeast Ohio has housed 145 veterans.
Overall, the program has 1,043 vouchers covering 11 counties in NEO. Currently, 969 (93%) Veterans are enrolled in HUD-VASH and 904 (87%) are housed.