More Americans are facing the trauma of homelessness. This month, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Marcia Fudge released the agency’s annual Point-in-Time count to Congress, reporting key findings related to homelessness in communities throughout the country. The Point-in-Time Count provides a snapshot of the number of people experiencing homelessness, both sheltered and unsheltered, in America on a single night. The one-night counts are conducted during the last 10 days of January each year. The count showed that 580,466 people were homeless in the United States on a single night in January 2020, an increase of 12,751 people, or 2.2 percent, from 2019. The count included 37,252 homeless veterans, 15,204 of those veterans, such as Alex Sangster in Miami, were living without shelter.
“What makes these findings even more devastating is that they are based on data from before COVID-19, and we know the pandemic only made the homelessness crisis worse,” Secretary Fudge said.
Half of America’s homeless population are in four states
More than half of people experiencing the trauma of homelessness came from four states hardest hit by the pandemic: California (161,548), New York (91,271), Florida (27,487), and Texas (27,229).
Despite being one of the four largest states where Americans are homeless, Florida’s rate of homelessness was less than the national average. Florida’s pre-pandemic 2020 numbers also indicate the largest decrease in homelessness since 2007. Many point to significant federal dollars that have come to Florida in the past decade to help the state overcome housing challenges, tax credits that have helped create hundreds of new affordable, supportive housing apartments in Miami-Dade County, and the many diverse private-public partnerships established through those federal programs.
One of those partnerships is Purpose Built Families Foundation’s Operation Sacred Trust collaboration. Operation Sacred Trust, known as OST, was established in 2011 for the purpose of ending veteran homelessness in South Florida’s largest communities: Broward and Miami-Dade counties. Significantly funded by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Supportive Services for Veteran Families (SSVF) program, the nonprofit has been nationally-accredited since 2018. For the past decade, the agency has implemented a unique, data-driven approach that is constantly seeking to “follow the science” of veteran homelessness. Similar VA-funded SSVF programs are located throughout the United States.
An approach that’s working
It’s an approach that’s working. Since 2011, the number of homeless veterans in Broward County dropped by 60%; in Miami-Dade County, veteran homelessness decreased by nearly 50%.
Seth Eisenberg, the program’s co-founder and CEO, says following the science combined with an almost insatiable appetite for novel technology is better for clients and ultimately less expensive to taxpayers. In 2020, for example, OST’s cost to provide services to a homeless or at-risk veteran family was less than half the national average and almost two-thirds less than other local providers.
Recently, I had a chance to dive into data to understand some of the unique aspects to the science of homelessness during the pandemic that may not be on the radar and how OST’s trauma-informed approach leads to both better service and lower costs.
The first thing that stood out was that the agency’s commitment to technology meant that while nearly all other programs, including local, state and federal agencies, suspended or delayed services during the early weeks of the pandemic, OST maintained 24/7 operations.
Every minute of every day, no matter the circumstances
Jacob Torner is the agency’s Vice President of Operations. Together with Dr. Juan Flores, a former combat Marine who directs OST’s Engagement team, Torner is responsible for making sure the agency is staffed to answer calls, emails, and text messages every minute of every day, no matter the circumstances.
“Our experience with hurricanes prepared us for the pandemic,” Torner explained. Prior to COVID-19, Torner and Flores established mobile operation centers, including staff in multiple states who are able to access key data, verify eligibility, connect veterans to immediate care, and process urgent financial requests to ensure veterans in crisis could rapidly access assistance and resources.
While Flores said the agency’s 24/7 commitment is based on a shared commitment to service among the OST team, it’s also a reflection of what the “science ” has shown is necessary.
“The veterans we serve are frequently surviving on the street. They may not have a reliable phone, and don’t have a consistent address,” Flores said. “An unanswered call or message at any time could be a lost opportunity to serve a veteran in crisis. For some, it can be life or death.”
Homeless veterans at high risk for suicide
Understanding the science has also meant recognizing many of the veterans who reach out to OST are actively contemplating suicide. “Relationship breakdown is one of the most common shared experiences of the veterans we serve,” Eisenberg said. “When you combine relationship breakdown with loss of housing, many homeless veterans are at the highest risk of suicide.”
Torner implemented extensive trauma-informed care training across the agency to make sure every team member connecting with veterans in crisis understands trauma and is able to respond with empathy and compassion to help clients experience a sense of trust, safety, relief and hope.
The data also revealed important findings regarding factors that are leading increasing numbers of veterans to return to homelessness.
In South Florida this past year, OST served over 1,000 homeless veterans in both Miami-Dade and Broward counties, and unfortunately, many of these veterans found themselves returning to the organization due to unforeseen circumstances.
Out of the staggering number of veterans served, 523 were assessed for re-entry reasons between March 11, 2020, to March 11, 2021, encompassing an entire year of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Of these 523 homeless veterans, 272 resided in Miami-Dade County and 251 in Broward County.
Even during eviction moratorium, many forced from homes
Despite the eviction moratorium, 80% of the veterans returning to OST for emergency housing assistance did so as a result of eviction notices. That meant that regardless of headlines boosting of state and federal protections against evictions during the pandemic, many of the most vulnerable were kicked out of their homes while COVID-19 was still raging. During the peak months of the pandemic, Torner said the agency provided emergency housing to nearly 200 veterans each night.
Family problems lead many back to homelessness
The second leading reason veterans returned for emergency assistance during the pandemic was even more surprising. For more than one in ten, the return to homelessness was a result of disputes with family and friends.
Understanding and acting on that finding can have significant implications to the cost and strategies communities implement throughout the country.
“Imagine if we can prevent even five to ten percent of those who return to homelessness by adjusting the services they receive when they initially experience housing instability,” Eisenberg said. “Those kinds of innovations cost little to nothing, but can potentially impact millions of dollars in funding that will be needed in the future if we don’t pay careful attention to what the science is telling us.”
Sharing best practices
Eisenberg expects the 2021 Point-in-Time count to show increased challenges for emergency housing providers across the nation. In response, OST is helping other veteran service organizations adopt approaches that can save lives and resources. One examples is OST’s Essence of Care training, a highly experiential, 14-hour online certification program that delivers skills for improved communication, problem solving, and emotional connection. “The result is better collaboration that embraces diversity and exemplifies empathy and compassion through every point-of-contact,” Eisenberg said.
“None of us can do this alone,” Torner stressed. “Following the science, particularly what we’re learning about the trauma of homelessness, trauma-informed care, strengthening resiliency, integrating technology, and helping clients address the underlying causes of housing instability, can go a long way.”
“We are making great strides towards our goal of one day not having to associate the words homeless and veteran,” Eisenberg added. “Our hope is to effectively end veteran homelessness not just in South Florida, but around the nation.”
Sukie Hernandez, a current Ph.D. candidate, began her higher education academic journey by obtaining her undergraduate degree in Psychology, quickly followed by a Masters degree in Biomedical Sciences, and is now in her final year of completing a Doctorate degree in General Psychology. Ms. Hernandez has vast knowledge of a wide variety of social services topics, with a specific interest in veteran homelessness. She has held the position of adjunct faculty member at one of South Florida’s largest public universities. In her free time, she enjoys volunteering at local community outreach centers, spending quality time with her husband who is a decorated U.S. Army Combat Veteran, and their four-legged companion, Harley.