Fuentes, 25, and the mother of a 3-year-old, lived out of her car until she received help from programs including HUD-VASH and Supportive Services for Veteran Families. They helped her find an apartment in Philadelphia, paying her deposit and rent and furnishing her new home.
“It even helped me fix my car so I could get to school, and I was able to reunite with my daughter,” Fuentes said. “These programs give veterans a second chance at life.”
Although the number of homeless veterans has decreased 24 percent since 2010, first lady Michelle Obama issued a challenge Wednesday to the country – more specifically to mayors and local leaders.
“Even one homeless veteran is a shame, and the fact that we have 58,000 is a moral outrage,” Obama said. “They’re going to end it and they’re going to do it by the end of 2015.”
The Mayors Challenge to End Veterans Homelessness is part of Obama and Jill Biden’s Joining Forces initiative. Seventy-seven mayors, four governors and four county officials from 35 states have pledged to meet the goal in their cities.
Sloan D. Gibson, acting secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs, said the housing-first approach is a winning strategy.
The program makes it easier for veterans to get housing quickly, which makes it easier to provide other services.
“Housing first works and we know it works best when we have a close, collaborative relationship with our partners in cities, counties, community groups and local VA health facilities,” Gibson said. “That’s why we need … leaders on the ground in every city. We’ve proven we can reduce veteran homelessness. Now, let’s end it.”
Gibson said he would be remiss if he didn’t mention another VA goal – improving access to health care for veterans. That’s the reason Gibson has his job – Eric K. Shinseki resigned as secretary last week after allegations of poor management at VA hospitals and clinics.
“We’re moving immediately to get veterans off of wait lists and into clinics,” Gibson said.
But Obama called it a “good news day.”
“When a veteran comes home kissing the ground, it is unacceptable that he should ever have to sleep on it,” Obama said. “So let’s get to work.”
A chronically homeless person can cost a community from $30,000 to $50,000 a year in emergency room visits, medical bills and law enforcement. The cost to give someone a home: $20,000.
Obama also noted the administration’s strengthening of veterans programs.
While HUV-HASH has existed since the early 1990s, it had housed only about 1,800 veterans through 2008. Since then, the program has brought more than 73,000 veterans out of homelessness.
The Supportive Services Program helped 60,000 veterans and their family members last year. Obama said this number is expected to grow to 100,000 next year.
“I’m not a mathematician, but somebody did the numbers for me,” Obama said. “In the last few years, more than 40 times as many veterans have been helped than during most of the program’s entire history.”
But she stressed, in line with the Federal Strategic Plan to Prevent and End Homelessness, that any number of homeless veterans above zero is too many.
“Tens of thousands of veterans are sleeping in their cars, or in a shelter or next to a subway vent,” Obama said. “We should be horrified because that’s not who we are as Americans. And so we can’t just throw up our hands and say this problem is too big for us.”
Reach reporter Madison Fantozzi at firstname.lastname@example.org or 202-326-9868. SHFWire stories are free to any news organization that gives the reporter a byline and credits the SHFWire.