Ending Homelessness for Veterans and their Families: the Importance of SSVF

As agencies across the federal government accelerate their work towards the 2015 goal of ending homelessness among Veterans, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has increased its investment in services for Veterans and their families with a tripling of funding in the Supportive Services for Veteran Families program. Supportive Services for Veteran Families (SSVF) is the only program administered by VA that awards grants to local non-profit organizations to provide services and cash assistance not only to Veterans, but to their families as well.  Unlike most services provided by VA, an individual only needs to have served in the military one day to qualify for services and not have a dishonorable discharge. SSVF is crucial in filling gaps in services funding for Veterans that other VA programs are not able to fund, helping to move Veterans permanently out of homelessness in a faster and more efficient way. VA is presently accepting applications from community-based organizations with the expectation of awarding up to $300 million in grants in 2013 (an increase from $100 million in 2012). 

While between ten percent and 30 percent of all homeless Veterans meet the federal definition of chronic homelessness, most homeless Veterans leave homelessness in less than one year.  Some preliminary data reports that one third of all homeless Veterans leave homelessness within 30 days.The strong investment in permanent housing vouchers (via the HUD-VASH program) has helped to provide a successful exit for Veterans who have extensive homeless histories as well as histories of mental illness and substance abuse. SSVF can be a flexible service line to support Veterans who can more quickly get back on their feet and to prevent them from becoming chronically homeless. During this important time in the SSVF application process for potential grantees and with an increased focus on this program because of the large increase in investment for next year, it is important that we highlight successful SSVF programs that may spark innovations and collaborations for other communities across the country. An example of a successful SSVF program is Southwest Solutions in Wayne County, Michigan.

Southwest Solutions has been serving people living with mental illness and in poverty since 1970.  The agency grew out of the vision of Monsignor Clement Kern, a visionary leader in the Detroit area who passionately advocated for the improvement in the conditions of people living with mental illness and poverty.  Southwest Solutions provides direct service through its Southwest Counseling (SWCS) agency and has provided housing services through Southwest Housing Corporation since 1979.  Southwest Solutions received funding as an SSVF provider two years ago and received approximately one million dollars in 2012 with the expectation of serving 450 Veterans. 

Since 2010, SWCS has provided a diverse array of services for Veterans.  In addition to cash assistance to provide move-in costs and rent stabilization, SWCS provides services as diverse as funding for car repair, substance abuse treatment, skills building, job training, and case management.  In the past year, SWCS has served 467 families at a cost of about $900 per family.  More than 70 percent of the services provided have been rapid re-housing, an intervention that has proven successful at stabilizing families as evidenced by the outcomes among rapid-rehousing programs funded through the Homeless Prevention and Rapid Rehousing Program at HUD. For those living unsheltered with longer-term homelessness, Southwest Solutions workers with an outreach model based on harm reduction principles that uses a “snowball” recruiting method, following the word of Veterans to find other Veterans wherever they may be. Southwest Solutions staff also attend and engage Veterans during Stand-Down events in the area. Because of the variety of services offered, the organization is able to assist families who may only need short-term assistance to get back on their feet while also reaching out to and serving Veterans who have greater barriers to stability.   

SWCS employs two senior level social workers and six outreach and engagement case managers.  Southwest Solutions staff actively search out Veterans under bridges and in abandoned houses.  “Because of the collapse of the housing market in Detroit,” many Veterans are moving into run-down, abandoned buildings,” says Jamie Ebaugh, Director of the Housing Resource Center for Southwest Solutions.  While squatting in abandon homes has allowed some homeless Veterans to escape the full brunt of living unsheltered, it has only further marginalized people with mental illness who could benefit from support and treatment because they are more difficult to locate, with hundreds of abandoned buildings in the city.  Southwest Solutions staff actively engage people living on the streets or in abandoned buildings to assist them into decent, supported housing so that they can have the dignity and respect they deserve.

SWCS staff also collaborates with VA staff, with frequent joint training and case conferencing.  Referrals are a two-way street between SWCS and the local Veterans Affairs Medical Center (VAMC) where clients go from SWCS to the VAMC for medical care, benefits and enrollment into HUD-VASH, and VAMC refers people to SWCS for assistance with down payment for permanent housing, stabilization services, prevention, and rapid re-housing services.  The two-way street is made possible by having leadership of both institutions committed to fostering the relationship and having a strong agreement on the foundation of practice, including employing a Housing First model throughout their programs. 

In addition to assisting Veterans to access VA benefits, Southwest Solutions has actively supported Veterans to access mainstream government resources such as Medicaid and Social Security payments for Veterans that qualify for these services.  In addition, SWCS participates in the local Continuum of Care process so that mainstream housing resources are available for Veterans who cannot qualify for VA services.  Tapping into mainstream services is a key function expected of SSVF grantees to leverage the funding coming from the VA and further expand the impact of these services.  Southwest Solutions also regularly meets with the local Grant and Per Diem (GPD) providers, to assist Veterans in finding permanent housing as they are exiting these programs, capitalizing on the improvement in their substance use disorders achieved during treatment in a GPD program to a successful transition to permanent housing. 

Overall, Southwest Solutions is an example of an agency that has taken its initial mission and expanded its reach to serve Veterans and their families.  Southwest Solutions has the diversity of services so that it can leverage mainstream resources and be flexible enough to respond to the changes in the local economy.  While also working with chronically homeless Veterans who are able to leave homelessness using HUD-VASH, Southwest Solutions uses the SSVF funding to attend to the needs of people who have relatively brief periods of homelessness and prevent a brief episode of homelessness from becoming a long-term crisis. 

At present, VA is accepting applications for the SSVF program, with the deadline for applications on February 1, 2013.  New and established providers are encouraged to apply as the federal investment in this program is greater than ever. With this increased investment there is an outstanding opportunity for traditional Continuum of Care providers to participate in services working with Veterans and to bring their expertise to this population, further integrating  services and intervention models across the spectrum of homeless individuals and families.