Biannual homeless tally includes focus on veterans
By JOE O'SULLIVAN - Star-Tribune staff writer
Cancer, heart disease, post-traumatic stress disorder, food, clothing. These are several issues to be dealt with on the long road to ending chronic homelessness among veterans. "If you find somebody who's homeless, look at their feet -- shoes are a major issue," said David Allhusen, who works for the U.S. Department of Veterans Services in Casper. "We buy shoes for them."
But where are the homeless? That is one reason why the social worker is looking forward to helping count the homeless at the end of this month: Allhusen needs to find the homeless veterans before he can help them. Every two years, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development conducts what it calls a point-in-time count. It's intended to provide a snapshot of every homeless person in every community in the country. In a November meeting with other social service agencies that discussed the count, Allhusen described it as "scraping the yard."
To make the count, local organizations -- like the VA, Casper Housing Authority, Self Help Center and other groups -- take time one day in late January to tally all the emergency shelter beds in the region and whether they are occupied. Then, they "scrape the yard" by walking the streets and seeking out any homeless who may be roughing it on their own.
Robin Mundell, manager of housing and community development for the city and a participant in the November meeting, could not be reached for comment. How many homeless persons can live through a Wyoming winter outdoors? It's a question not lost on local social workers. The date of the count is mandated for late January by the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, which includes representatives from several federal agencies: the U.S. departments of Veterans Affairs, Housing and Urban Development, Education, and Health and Human Services, among others. Since some part of the homeless population -- how much is unknown, according to Allhusen and others -- migrates throughout the year, local officials believe that Wyoming is given short shrift in the count. After all, being homeless in a cold weather climate is no spring picnic. "We've raised the questions if there's a little bit of bias in the Rocky Mountain region," said Allhusen. "Why don't we do a homeless count in January in Arizona and Florida, say, but June or July in Wyoming and the Rocky Mountain region? Despite the reservations, the count will go as scheduled in late January.
This year, the tally of homeless veterans serves an added purpose. The VA recently announced an initiative to end chronic homelessness among returning soldiers in five years, and the January count will help the department figure out where to deploy more outreach and services. "If we find there's more homelessness in the state along the I-80 corridor, the VA will deploy more resources there, as opposed to Sheridan or Gillette," said Allhusen. Under VA guidelines, homeless veterans are entitled to free medical care, free dental care and other services, according to Allhusen. The first goal is to move the homeless into housing.
As part of the goal, the VA and HUD have an agreement in place to provide housing vouchers for homeless veterans, according to Allhusen. Once a homeless person is in a stable living condition, then a case manager can help him or her with any issues and help move them toward finding work.
"If they're in a home, they're likely to rebuild their life faster," he said. While the distinction may not seem like much, Allhusen says it's a shift away from the concept of building homeless shelters to solve the problem. "Shelters don't seem to end homelessness," he said. "We're really trying to advance beyond the shelter mentality."