The Department of Veterans Affairs has been trying to end veteran homelessness by the end of this year. The goal was to achieve and sustain something called “functional zero,” which doesn’t eliminate homelessness, but rather ensures that it’s rare, brief and non-recurring.
The country as a whole hasn’t reached functional zero yet, but the state of Virginia, the city of New Orleans, and Houston, Texas have. Peter Kelleher is CEO and President of Harbor Homes, a nonprofit trying to reach functional zero in Nashua. He recently went to Texas to learn more about Houston’s success. He spoke with NHPR’s Peter Biello.
Let’s start by talking about how the city of Houston did it. How did Houston reach functional zero?
I think the first thing that they did was really focus on a philosophy of housing first, so that people who were veterans who were homeless were really put right into housing regardless of all of the other service needs that they had, and those needs would be addressed subsequently.
Could this be done here in New Hampshire, and in Nashua?
Well, right now in Nashua, we sort of already employ that philosophy. We have an inventory of housing that is vital. We really look at housing as healthcare. If you try to say to folks maybe that are maybe struggling with addiction that, "You need to get into recovery before you can get your housing," or "You need to get employment" or something like that, it really doesn’t work. People need to get a safe, affordable place that they can call home before they can really think about the other parts of their life.
Especially since in New Hampshire there’s a shortage of beds for people who need addiction treatment services.
There really is a shortage, yes.
You’ve been working on this goal for some time now, trying to get to functional zero in Nashua. How close are you?
We think we’re just about there. We’ve applied for kind of certification with United States Interagency Council on Homelessness and we’re kind of in a process of getting data back and forth with them and we think we’re within, say, the next three to four months, having completed that process.
How do you find out which veterans need help finding housing? Do they have to come to you, or does Harbor Homes go out looking for veterans who might need help?
There’s a tremendous amount of outreach that’s involved, and the challenge of trying to figure out who are the unsheltered veterans, identifying them, is a formidable one. We need the public’s help in any way, if any member of the public knew about a veteran who may be homeless, we would love to contact them so we could assist that veteran, anywhere in New Hampshire.
Why is Nashua a prime place to have a project like this? Is there an unusually large number of veterans in Nashua who are homeless?
I think there is a need for more housing capacity, especially permanent housing for veterans, throughout New Hampshire. In Nashua, we’ve been working on it for about 11 years, and we’ve been able to identify veterans in our annual point in time count, so we knew we had more veterans there and so we developed resources and various programs to assist them over these years.
What’s the next step for Harbor Homes in getting closer to functional zero?
Well we want to work not just in the greater Nashua area, but we’re interested in supporting the entire state in achieving that, and we’ve been working very closely with all the key stakeholders, including the VA, the providers, the governor’s office has—we’ve been grateful that they’ve been holding a weekly conference call with us and all the providers while we work together as a team, so I think, going forward, it’s really developing the strength of our partnerships and figuring out how to overcome a lot of the barriers that are in place.