Counting homeless vets proves elusive

But numbers can determine how much aid programs receive

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No one knows for sure how many homeless veterans are on the streets in Iowa because only four of Iowa’s 99 counties are surveyed to estimate a total statewide count.

Moreover, at least some of the homeless vets are transient and may not be in the state on the one day in January that the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development tries to count them. Others simply don’t want to be found, social workers told IowaWatch. The number of counters available to take on finding homeless vets can be a problem, too.

“When I started there was a small group of us, maybe three or four of us, and we would go out for few hours, midnight till 2 or 3, and we’d find who we could find,” said Dusty Noble, Hawkeye Area Community Action Program veteran advocate in Cedar Rapids since 2014.

Finding homeless veterans is important because of a national push to end veteran homelessness and because of funding from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and HUD to provide homeless shelters and support anti-poverty organizations like HACAP.

The last HUD estimate of homeless veterans in Iowa was 170, based on a Jan. 27 count. That count was made in Linn, Polk, Johnson and Woodbury counties and presented to HUD in June.

“The main problem is we don’t know how many homeless veterans there are in Iowa,” said U.S. Rep. Dave Loebsack, D-Iowa, formerly a member of the House Armed Forces Committee. “I have no have doubt in my mind that it underreports the amount of homeless.”

The January count is focused on large population centers in Iowa because that’s where most veterans go for shelter and services.

And “those are the places that are likely to have more volunteers who go out and do the street count,” said Ehren Stover-Wright, research director for the Iowa branch of the Institute for Community Alliances. His organization is a multistate organization that is in Des Moines and that collects information from shelters to communicate to HUD.

“Sometimes it’s hard to nail down a number because you know people are sleeping rough, or maybe sleeping in abandoned buildings. It’s really hard to have people who are willing to go out and ask (about being a veteran), and then if you do ask you don’t always get a straight answer,” Stover-Wright said.

The VA is pushing to get veteran homelessness down to functional zero, said Jan Zeleke, a veterans case manager at the Central Iowa Shelter and Services in Des Moines. Functional zero means doing whatever the VA can to help those who want help.

The HUD estimate from January is based on a point-in-time count during winter on the last Wednesday of that month. It is included in a report about homelessness that is given to Congress each November.

But HACAP’s Noble, who helps conduct the point-in-time count in Linn County, said he knows the local count was not accurate because he has dealt with more homeless veterans than were showing up in the January count.

“We started to see there was a problem, that we weren’t getting an accurate benchmark,” Noble said.

Linn County volunteers try to find additional homeless veterans during a summer count of all homeless people in the county.

HACAP partners with groups like the Abbe Center for Community Mental Health’s Projects for Assistance in Transition from Homelessness, a grant-supported state program for homeless outreach. Volunteers counting homeless people in the summer focus on the Cedar Rapids metro area and the Interstate 380 rest stops south of Cedar Rapids.

The count this year was made starting the night of July 27 and concluding the early morning hours of July 28.

On that hot Iowa night in late July, volunteers Mark Brown, a Willis Dady prevention and shelter outreach specialist; Lisa Williams, development and project coordinator with the Willis Dady prevention and shelter; Chris Poole with the Abbe Center’s PATH homeless outreach; and HACAP case manager Jenny LeVelle checked parking lots and rest stops, speaking to people who had been sleeping in their cars and one couple camping by a building. They were in one of four groups of volunteers trying to find homeless people not using shelters.

Some people the counters spoke to were not homeless. Some said they were traveling. Some others objected to being offered help.

At the end of the night, the volunteers had found three homeless veterans.

“A lot times it’s just a hit-miss,” Brown said. “They’re not there the night we go out and see them but they might be there the next night. But the next night doesn’t count.”

This story was produced by Iowa Center for Public Affairs, a non-profit, online news website that collaborates with Iowa news organizations to produce explanatory and investigative reporting.

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