In this morning’s Orlando Sentinel, Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs and I authored a column on providing support for our homeless veterans. This is an important issue and I wanted to share details on our efforts to help house our veterans.
Central Florida can be deeply proud of its long history of supporting the military. From our early days as home to McCoy Air Force Base, through decades of welcoming recruits to our Naval Training Center, and now, as home to “Team Orlando”, the unique, joint military command headquartered in the Central Florida Research Park, we’ve nurtured our relationship with the nation’s armed forces. From right here in Central Florida we’ve seen our National Guard and auxiliary units activated for missions across the state and around the world, and soon, we will join in welcoming wounded warriors and veterans of all ages and ranks to the brand new, state-of-the-art Veterans Affairs (VA) medical complex at Medical City.
It’s an incredible legacy of support and partnership with those who have defended our freedom. But our debt of gratitude is never fully paid, and today, as too many veterans and families struggle with homelessness, we must fight for them as they have fought for us.
The extent of the problem is truly heartbreaking, with nearly 50,000 American veterans homeless today, forcing the men and women who fought for our freedom to search for a safe place to sleep, or find relief from the biting cold or sweltering heat. In Central Florida, due to the high concentration of homeless veterans who live here, we’ve been identified by the VA as a priority region for action.
In 2011, the Homeless Services Network of Central Florida (HSN), reported 690 homeless veterans. That same year, the Orlando Sentinel reported that Florida was home to the second-largest population of homeless veterans in the country, and that the population of homeless veterans in Orange, Osceola, and Seminole counties had nearly doubled. Working with the VA to specifically identify veterans and match them with benefits and services they deserved, including housing vouchers and treatment, and in partnership with agencies throughout the region, Central Florida was able to achieve a drastic reduction in the numbers, experiencing a nearly 17% reduction in Veteran homelessness by 2012.
Since that time we have continued to see an incredible reduction of 57% in total veteran homelessness because of the VA’s a shift to a “Housing First” model, which places veterans in permanent housing before treating issues like addiction or mental health. Once housed, the veterans are provided with case management and other services to keep them stably housed.
We are working hard to maintain the VA’s momentum. In 2014, Orlando and Orange County were selected for the VA’s “25 Cities Initiative”, as well as the Mayor’s Challenge to End Veteran Homelessness. Working with federal partners, the Orlando Housing Authority, Orange County’s housing agency, HSN, our Central Florida Commission on Homelessness and government entities throughout the region, we’re committed to setting the national standard in caring for our veterans. As a follow-up to a coordinated pilot program, which was limited to downtown and east Orange County, and building on a recent VA grant which will pay for housing and supportive services, we are expanding region-wide, bringing other jurisdictions into the coordinated assessment and outreach efforts. Salt Lake City, Phoenix and most recently, New Orleans have ended veterans’ homelessness and we can, too.
We’ve long been known for our culture of collaboration, as strongly-forged partnerships are transforming our region. Turning this strength to focus on veteran homelessness, we are demonstrating our culture of caring. Together, we are committed to eliminating the barriers that remain, and to involving key private sector partners, including landlords, realtors, apartment and housing developers, philanthropists, faith leaders, and private citizens in helping to house our veterans.
To quote VA Secretary Robert McDonald, “One of the things you learn in the Army is you never leave a soldier behind. Unfortunately, we’ve left some people behind, and they’re our homeless Veterans. The VA is committed to achieving the goal of ending Veteran homelessness, and we won’t rest until every homeless Veteran has a place to call home.” Mr. Secretary, we join you in that goal, and in fighting for those who’ve served our country so valiantly.
– Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer and Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs