‘So much more we can do’ for more than 2,500 homeless FL veterans

Former homeless veteran Mary White at U.S. House Veterans' Affairs Committee hearing in Florida.

A few years ago, U.S. Army veteran Mary White was a cash-strapped single mother who found herself couch-surfing with her young son. 

“We had become homeless,” she testified to U.S. House lawmakers Monday during a U.S. House Veterans’ Affairs Committee field hearing held in New Port Richey, north of St. Petersburg and Tampa. 

She wasn’t alone. There are an estimated 2,543 homeless veterans living in Florida, a state official told lawmakers, and there are likely even more who haven’t been counted. 

Throughout the United States, the number of homeless veterans has dropped steeply in recent years, due in part to federal housing assistance programs. But government officials and local experts say more must be done to count and serve the homeless veterans in Florida and other states. 

Homelessness among Florida veterans has effectively been cut in half since 2011, said Danny Burgess, executive director of the Florida Department of Veterans’ Affairs. 

Joe M. Battle, director of the James A. Haley Veterans’ Hospital in Tampa, said that the local population of homeless veterans has been reduced by about 70% in the past decade. 

Florida has five counties and three communities that have declared “functional zero” for homelessness, Burgess added. 

The decreased numbers are “very telling and significant,” but “there’s still so much more we can do,” Burgess said. He stressed that the roughly 2,543 homeless veterans in Florida are only the ones the state knows about. 

“As we all know, some veterans do not want to be identified, they may not want to come out of the woods,” he said. 

On a single night in January 2018, about 37,800 veterans were experiencing homelessness nationwide, and about 23,300 of those counted were unsheltered or living on the street, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. 

Florida was among the states with the highest overall homeless populations in 2018, according to a federal survey. It ranked No. 3 after California and New York, although Florida’s rate of homelessness was lower than the national average. 

The state’s large homeless population is due in part to Florida’s “palm trees and our mild winters,” said Michael Raposa, CEO of St. Vincent DePaul CARES, an organization that provides homeless services in the Tampa Bay area. He noted that the region sees its homeless population spike by about 23% in the winter. 

Raposa warned that the counts of homeless populations aren’t always accurate portrayals. 

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which mandates an annual point-in-time (PIT) count of homeless populations “provides zero direction to local communities,” he said. 

Raposa also said there have been instances where law enforcement officials antagonize homeless populations in areas ahead of the surveys “so that when they’ve gone back to do the count, no one was there.” 

U.S. House lawmakers on Monday said they’re committed to further reducing the homeless veteran populations in Florida and elsewhere. 

Rep. Gus Bilirakis (R-Fla.), who represents Florida’s Gulf Coast in the Tampa Bay metropolitan area, said at the hearing, “I know we all share the common goal to ensure those who have worn the cloth of our country are never homeless.” Bilirakis is the top Republican on the House Veterans’ Affairs Subcommittee on Economic Opportunity. 

Rep. Mike Levin (D-Calif.), chairman of the subcommittee, said that veterans’ issues is “the one area in Congress where we are working together across party lines.” 

White, the U.S. Army veteran, took advantage of federal and local assistance to find sustainable housing. She used childcare benefits while she went back to school and completed her master’s degree in social work and she’s working toward becoming a licensed clinical social worker. 

Even with those resources, “barriers remain a very big reality for struggling veterans,” she said in her testimony. 

“Additional funding is needed for emergency and transitional housing, transportation and ancillary services that will ultimately save money, as more veterans become self-sufficient and productive members of their communities.”

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