Ben Carson, secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, speaks during the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans' annual conference at the Grand Hyatt Hotel in northwest D.C. on May 30. (Brigette White/The Washington Informer)
**FILE** Ben Carson, secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (Brigette White/The Washington Informer)

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About 700 service providers converged last week on a Northwest hotel for a conference on how to combat homelessness among veterans, one of the nation’s most complex problems.

The National Coalition of Homeless Veterans, a nonprofit, organized the May 30-June 1 conference at the Grand Hyatt Hotel, which focused on veteran-specific programs, policies and procedures.

The federal Department of Housing and Urban Development estimates about 40,000 veterans experienced homelessness on a daily basis.

“We want to put ourselves out of business, but these kinds of things just don’t disappear overnight,” said Ralph Cooper, an Air Force veteran and one of the founders who helped establish the coalition.

The group established in 1990 discussed policy recommendations, job training ideas and other programs to help veterans.

Nationally, the coalition assessed the demographic population of homeless veterans at 11 percent among all adults. Roughly 50 percent experience substance abuse, and 50 percent are age 51 and older.

Cooper said at least 30 percent of homeless veterans are Black.

Locally, the coalition’s data from last year marked 392 homeless veterans in the D.C. area compared to 468 in 2016, a 19 percent decrease. The count includes those who reside in the District; Prince George’s and Montgomery counties in Maryland; the city of Alexandria and Arlington, Fairfax and Prince William counties in Virginia.

As for the conference, sessions discussed topics such as race, employment, serving LGBTQ veterans and partnering with federal agencies such as HUD.

HUD Secretary Ben Carson, who gave opening remarks for the conference, said there’s been a 46 percent reduction in veteran homelessness since 2010, but emphasized veterans still need help.

The 66-year-old retired neurosurgeon said more money and resources must go toward a “holistic approach” to fight opioid addiction, post-traumatic stress disorder and physical ailments from combat.

To help veterans and disenfranchised residents on job training and health and wellness programs, he said the agency’s first Envision Center plans to open this week in his native Detroit.

“What I really look forward to is us having a nation where people don’t play politics with everything,” Carson said. “We [need to] start thinking about what’s good for the people and not what’s good for the Democrats and Republicans.”

Karen Pence, wife of Vice President Mike Pence, spoke about three hours after Carson during a lunch plenary to promote art therapy’s success among vets.

She emphasized “it’s not arts and crafts” based on an art therapist with at least a master’s degree to use art and psychology to help those who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, stress and other health ailments.

“It is so powerful with our service members” said Pence, a teacher for 25 years with 12 of them as an art teacher. “Art therapy is changing lives. It is saving lives.”

Vets in the District

Ely Ross, director of D.C. Mayor’s Office of Veterans Affairs, explained how the District assists 30,000 veterans, about 5.5 percent of the city’s adult population.

Ross, who served in the Marines, the veteran homelessness declined by 25 percent since 2014 through a variety of housing and other initiatives.

Last year, the city opened the 124-unit John and Jill Ker Conway Residence in Northeast. About 60 apartments are designated for formerly homeless veterans.

On May 24, the city broke ground on a 77-unit furnished apartment building on the Walter Reed Medical Center campus in Northwest.

Seventy-five will be offered for those who receive up to 30 percent of the area median income and the other two at 50 percent. This campus will provide long-term housing for homeless veterans and also offer onsite services.

The office created a pilot transportation program last year called “Vets Rides,” which provided low-income and homeless vets free rides to doctor appointments, job training and other programs.

Ross said the city offered 2,400 rides for veterans over an eight-week period. The program will be relaunched this month on a permanent basis.

Other programs the city created for veterans include:

• Small-business and entrepreneurial program held every four months.

• Conduct bimonthly veteran roundtables that allows them to speak freely about concerns and solutions. The Vets Rides program came from one of these sessions.

• LBGTQ sessions for veterans to access and receive health and other benefits.

• Help identify veterans inappropriately discharged through “DD 214,” a document which verifies a veteran’s proof of military service.

The city’s Veterans Affairs office will launch a Veterans Service Officer program next year, which will allow the city help veterans file claims directly to U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

“My goal is to make Washington, D.C., the most veteran-friendly [jurisdiction] in the country,” Ross said. “We recognize we are the veterans last and best hope. I’m excited about what the future holds for our veteran community.”

Therapy and Employment

One session focused on specific activities two nonprofit organizations conduct with homeless veterans in Baltimore and Tarrant County, Texas.

Veterans receive therapeutic classes in tai chi, drumming and art at The Baltimore Station, a residential treatment facility for men.

Arlene Hackbarth, a clinical director at the station, said the men are offered courses on how to manage an apartment and basic necessities such as cooking.

The men also receive education on financial literacy, participate in group therapy sessions and establish a written treatment plan. Hackbarth said some men served in combat and experienced difficulty transitioning into civilian life.

Because mainly women work at the station, Hackbarth said they allow a man to walk a woman to her vehicle after work.

She said 83 percent of the men who leave receive permanent housing.

“It seems really simple to us, but for a lot of these men they have never been on their own and never had to do those things,” she said. “Before we put them in a house, we don’t want to set them up for failure.”

With more than 6,700 individuals homeless in Tarrant County, Texas, the LegUp Program took a survey of what clients wanted: jobs.

After the program experienced a decline in the job training and life skills classes, the five-week sessions were cut back to one week, focusing solely on employment.

The classes have increased with both homeless veterans and civilians that includes a criminal background check, resume writing and mock interviews.

Alonzo Peterson, executive director of the Fort Worth, Texas-based program, said the life skills portion of the class was eliminated, which he admitted caused some people to leave.

In addition, he said 50 percent of the clients obtain a job in three months.

“Teaching someone five weeks of skills they already know, isn’t very helpful for them,” he said. “We had to change our mindset. It helped. It’s all about the client.”

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