North Philadelphia: Addressing Veteran Homelessness

Formerly homeless veteran John Kulp walks his dog outside of the Support Homeless Veterans house at 2112 Camac Street in Philadelphia.

American military veterans can return home from service facing a number of uncertainties. Employment concerns, education, family life and the task of assimilating into everyday society all pose common obstacles. Civilian life does not demand the regimented routine that many veterans become used to while in the military.

For some vets, that lack of structure leads them down a destructive path and, before long, they find themselves in a dire situation.

“It was terrible,” said United States Army veteran, Bill Olsen. “It was cold. You had to watch your back and your clothes. I wore my shoes to bed. They didn’t care about you in the shelters. They put you on a cot to sleep and they’d kick you out in the morning. Police would kick you out the of parks after that. It feels like there’s nowhere to go.”

Olsen, who now resides in a group home,  is just one voice among the thousands of American vets that have experienced the reality that is veteran homelessness. According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, more than 58,000 veterans in America were living without a permanent housing situation in the year 2013.

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There is progress being made in terms of shrinking that number. Federally funded programs, and private programs alike, are working to end veteran homelessness. On a national scale, the population of homeless veterans has decreased by more than 9,400 since 2011. This is, in part, due to a “housing first” approach to getting people off the streets. This method definitely decreases the population designated as homeless, but it may not be the only the solution to the equation.

“The numbers have decreased because the VA likes the housing first model,” said Support Homeless Veterans president, Cara Colantuono. “SSVF and HUD/VASH, basically they just give you an apartment and hope you keep it together. Many people lose the apartment due to lack of treatment of their real problems. But overall, it extremely affected the numbers.”

shv hall
The Bulletin board keeps vets informed of the rules of the SHV house located at 2112 Camac Street in North Philadelphia. John Kulp (top image) resides at SHV. He painted the steps to honor the military branches.

Getting the veterans into housing is an important step, but there is concern about housing first among some people in the supportive services community. Some question where permanent housing fits into the overall process of recovering from homelessness.

“Transition housing usually lasts around two years,” Colantuono said. “Housing first gives permanent housing without addressing mental health and employment problems.”

The SSVF program has given housing grants to vets with no stable income. After it runs out, they often can’t pay their rent.

“It doesn’t make any sense,” Colantuono continued. “You see a reflection in numbers. If you check in six months later, guys might not have jobs. They can’t afford it after the first six months and could be back out on the street.”

The decline in homelessness on the national scale has mostly not been reflected in the city of Philadelphia. The total number of homeless veterans in the city grew from 353 in 2011 to 440 in 2013. Multiple factors are at the root of the growing figure.

“Numbers here have risen, most likely because more men and women have discharged from the military since 2011,” Colantuono said. “More delayed onset Post Traumatic Stress Disorder symptoms have had time to expose themselves and create problems for the veterans.”

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Even with different groups not necessarily agreeing on how to end veteran homelessness, each group remains dedicated to achieving the same goal. With the overall population increasing as vets return home from Iraq and Afghanistan, the available assistance programs in Philadelphia are seeing a rise in the number of people they are serving. As total number of homeless grows, it is important that the number of vets getting assistance is also increasing. The number of veterans defined as “sheltered” in the city rose by nearly 100 between 2011 and 2013. Sheltered veterans are defined as homeless veterans who have a documented attachment to transitional housing or an assistance facility.

Whether it is housing first, employment focused aid or independent living with support programs, vets must be willing to get assistance in addition to being able to find it.

Anthony Brown is a resident of Support Homeless Veterans’ Camac Street property.

United States Army veteran Anthony Brown knows this first hand.

“It’s not impossible, but it is difficult,” Brown said. “The light is there but you have to be the one to go to the light. You have to make that move.”

Brown struggled through time as a homeless vet on the streets of Philadelphia before finding his place among the people at Support Homeless Veterans.

“I did all the drinking, the drugging, sleeping in the subways where you can see the rats,” Brown said. “You fall asleep, then wake up minutes later and people want to stomp you. I found this place (SHV), they told me to drop all that stuff. It helped me wake up. You gotta get up, do something, do some work around the house. Occupy your time. Keep moving and motivated.”

Getting every last veteran off of the streets is a goal that service groups feel can be achieved in the near future. In the meantime, they will continue their efforts to assist people who have served  in the military along the path out of homelessness.

Local organizations like Support Homeless Veterans are always looking for donations and volunteers to help them in the fight to end veteran homelessness. You can also contact the Veterans Multi-Service Center for more information on getting involved.

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Text, images, graphics and video by Bob Dieckmann. Statistics courtesy of U.S Department of Housing and Urban Development.

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