Tackling homelessness one event at a time

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Years of declining veteran homelessness due, in part, to VA events dedicated to eradicating the problem

According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s 2015 Annual Homeless Assessment Report, an estimated 47,725 veterans nationwide found themselves homeless on a single cold January night. That’s 47,725 too many.

The silver lining, though, is that the current number of homeless veterans in the U.S. is a significant decrease from the 73,367 estimate just six years earlier. This 35 percent nationwide decline began with the unveiling and implementation of Opening Doors, the nation’s first comprehensive federal strategy to prevent and end homelessness. The initiative was introduced by President Barack Obama in 2009 and is overseen by the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness, which includes the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Part of the VA’s success in this endeavor is the department’s various programs and events geared toward taking care of homeless veterans, such as the Washington, D.C., VA Medical Center’s 2016 Winterhaven Stand Down, held in January.

The annual event, described by hospital officials as a one-stop shop, was a full day of free services aimed at leading homeless veterans to independence and improved health.

“Winterhaven is an entry point for services that lead veterans to independence and improved health,” said Brian A. Hawkins, Director of the medical center. “It is an integral part of the D.C. VA Medical Center’s comprehensive effort to eliminate and prevent veteran homelessness.”

Provided services included health screenings; housing and employment counseling; substance abuse counseling and psychological services; dental exams; HIV testing and free warm clothing, boots, shoes and hygiene kits. Attendees were also treated to hot lunches and haircuts.

Participation in the stand down decreased compared to last year, but that’s a good thing according to medical center officials. It means there are fewer homeless veterans on the streets. In fact, the number of homeless veterans living in the district dropped from more than 700 to 408 during the same period.

“Word got out among the homeless veteran community in and around the capital area about how much of a difference Winterhaven plays in these veterans’ lives,” said Kevin Morton, the hospital’s Health Care for Homeless Veterans coordinator. “I think that says we’ve got a good thing going here.”

“The strides our nation and the D.C. VA Medical Center have made in ending veteran homelessness are nothing short of astounding,” said DAV National Adjutant Marc Burgess. “But there’s more to be done to get the number down to zero, and it’s events like the VA’s Winterhaven Stand Down that will get us there.”