Jennifer Gonzalez, Executive Director, Alamo Community Group
: The Department of Veterans Affairs says that about 1.5 million veterans are at imminent risk of homelessness due to lack of support and poverty. San Antonio, home to four active military installations, has the second largest veteran population in Texas. Each year, roughly 132,000 students complete military training in San Antonio and large numbers of veterans return to make this city their home. In 2011, the Alamo Community Group (ACG) saw a growing number of veteran families facing homelessness and launched its House Our Heroes Program.
Alamo Community Group's mission is to provide quality affordable housing to low and moderate income families throughout Bexar County, Texas. In addition to providing housing, we believe it is essential to promote resident education, self-sufficiency, leadership and volunteerism and do so with a menu of resident services and programs. ACG, guided by the most prevalent needs of the community, sometimes focuses on a geographic area where affordable housing is needed for employees of nearby major employers. At other times, certain populations drive ACG's direction, such as focusing on assisting homeless veteran families. In 2011, as veterans arrived in San Antonio from Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom, many were faced with the lack of quality affordable housing which led them to "couch surfing" and then homelessness. HUD reports conclude that veterans are far more likely to experience homelessness than other Americans, in part because of their high rates of post-traumatic stress disorder, physical injuries and disabilities and other factors that make reintegrating into civilian life and employment difficult.
ACG initiated the House Our Heroes Program with the assistance of the Texas Veterans Commission, which enabled us to provide housing using a Housing First model and to expand our existing resident services to offer homeless veterans families case management and temporary financial assistance. The National Alliance to End Homelessness contends, "By providing housing assistance, case management and supportive services responsive to individual or family needs after an individual or family is housed, communities can significantly reduce the time people experience homelessness and prevent further episodes of homelessness."
ACG housed over 500 previously homeless veteran families or families at risk of homelessness throughout its multifamily portfolio and maintains an 81 percent success rate. Once our veterans and their families move in, our case manager addresses any immediate concerns such as food, clothing and basic necessities. Next, our case manager works with families to create individualized family work plans by outlining short-term goals such as securing veteran benefits, employment or training and educational opportunities. As short-term goals are accomplished, families can move toward longer term goals such as homeownership. We have found that families are more successful when tasks are broken into smaller manageable goals.
In addition, we have found it imperative to assist many veteran families to create a much-needed support network. Resident programs that encourage constructive relationships with neighbors promote community and support reliance upon each other. Many of our veterans suffer from physical and mental disabilities and often must overcome many barriers in their everyday lives. Max Sotelo, an Army Veteran affirms, "When you have to deal with multiple issues all the time life gets very overwhelming very quickly and it is hard to not get angry or depressed." Having this community support network provides many of our veterans with an opportunity to share their experiences and frustrations with others who have experienced similar situations and help them become more resilient.
For example, one veteran family found that since moving into the Cypress Cove Apartments they are better equipped to deal with events that could have easily thrown their lives into havoc. Steven Barnett has lived with his elementary school aged daughter at Cypress Cove since 2014. Previously homeless, Barnett and his daughter rode the bus throughout the city since they had no home to go to. Since moving in, Barnett has secured employment as a car mechanic and a vehicle and is saving to purchase a home. He attributes his resilience to a variety of factors including housing assistance, employment and training resources, as well as a support system. He asserts, "With the friends I have made and the resources that I know are available I don't feel alone. Things don't trigger my PTSD as quickly. I can now go to my buddies here and talk through things a little better."
This project illustrates two important lessons learned:
- A multitude of resources are needed to encourage continued family resilience among our previously homeless veteran families.
- Flexibility is essential since no one system works for everyone. Interventions must be individualized and evolve.
Our future challenge is to demonstrate continuing resilience using data to monitor housing and employment stability by length of tenure and to look for other outcome measurements that can demonstrate overall upward mobility.