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Homelessness among veterans declined through Obama administration efforts (w/video)

Renice Freeman, 63, who served in the Air Force more than 18 years, credits help from government programs with turning his life around. Once homeless, he landed a place of his own at Cinnamon Cove Apartments. [OCTAVIO JONES | Times ]
Published Jan. 18, 2017

TAMPA

The apartment in Cinnamon Cove on N 15th Street may not look like much, but to Renice "Leon" Freeman, it's a welcome refuge after years on the streets.

Freeman has lived here for about a year. Before that, the 63-year-old Air Force veteran wandered Tampa, sleeping near trash bins, in abandoned buildings, even at an old church.

Then he found help, on Veterans Day 2015, at a Tampa event known as Operation Reveille. Freeman was steered toward a stable home, health care and other support as one of tens of thousands of once-homeless veterans helped through programs created, expanded or inspired by Obama administration efforts.

The goal was to end homelessness among veterans. That won't happen by the time Obama leaves office Friday. But the number of homeless veterans has been slashed 47 percent since 2010, according to the most recent one-night count by the Department of Veterans Affairs — to about 40,000 nationwide and 325 in the Tampa area.

The number of veterans using VA homelessness programs has nearly doubled nationwide, from 158,000 in 2011 to 304,000 in 2016. The efforts have been so successful that even critics who blasted the Obama administration for the many failures of the VA have offered grudging respect.

One of them is U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis, the Palm Harbor Republican and vice chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, who has investigated the VA over long wait times for medical care and scandal over coverups in dozens of veteran deaths.

"While we have made some good progress to address veterans homelessness through housing voucher programs, there's still much work to be done," Bilirakis told the Tampa Bay Times.

Chiefly, he said, troops need help returning to civilian life.

The new chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, Tennessee Republican Phil Roe, commended outgoing VA Secretary Robert McDonald and the VA for their efforts to end veteran homelessness. But Roe also questioned the cost.

"While the number of homeless veterans has decreased roughly 47 percent, VA funding for homeless initiatives is now roughly $1.6 billion, an increase of over 300 percent since 2009," he told the Times.

Freeman, standing among pots and pans in his kitchen, credits the services he has received with helping turn his life around. He is one of more than 360,000 veterans and family members who have found housing or avoided homelessness since 2010 through programs operated by the VA and the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

"I was denied services for years," Freeman said. "If it wasn't for the Obama administration, I'd still be out on the streets."

• • •

Early on, Obama made ending homelessness a priority, adopting the strategy of getting people into housing first, then adding layers of support to help keep them there.

The administration initially invested $1.5 billion in its new Homeless Prevention and Rapid Re-Housing program. While aimed at all homeless people, the program singled out those who had served in the military.

"Veterans should never find themselves on the streets living without care and hope," Obama wrote in a 2010 report, noting that was carrying on work begun in the Bush administration.

The shelter-first philosophy has paid off, say local advocates for homeless veterans, including employees at VA hospitals and people running taxpayer-funded private efforts.

"Committing to housing first is the key to the strategic vision and initiative for ending veteran homelessness," said Bob Blackwood, social work chief at James A. Haley VA Medical Center. People respond better to help with a roof over their heads, he said.

To accomplish this, the Obama administration has used programs including one called HUD/VASH, combining HUD housing vouchers issued through local housing authorities with ongoing support from VA physical and mental health programs. More than 78,000 vouchers were issued nationally through September 2015.

Begun under the Bush administration, the program grew under Obama. In Hillsborough, Pasco, Polk and Hernando counties, the number of vouchers issued jumped from 105 in 2008 to 987 as of 2016. In Pinellas County, they grew from 105 to 1,309 for the same period.

• • •

A former Air Force aeromedical technician, Freeman — like many homeless veterans — ended up on the streets through an overwhelming combination of service and personal issues.

Part of his job had been reacting to aviation disasters and sometimes recovering bodies.

The smell of charred flesh still stirs horrific memories, he said, contributing to his post-traumatic stress and depression.

Then, while he was in Korea, tragedy struck when his 6-year-old son was murdered at home.

"I took to drinking quite heavily," said Freeman, who prefers to be called Leon. "That was my son's name," he said, his eyes welling with tears.

Freeman won't talk much about what happened next, saying only that he was on a downward spiral, court martialed and kicked out of the Air Force.

According to the Air Force, he was court martialed for drunken driving, writing bad checks and failing to pay a debt, and sentenced to two years in a military prison. His military discharge papers show he was kicked out of the Air Force with a bad conduct discharge and busted six ranks from a technical sergeant to an airman basic, the flying branch's lowest rank.

The records also show Freeman earned the Air Force Good Conduct Medal with five oak leaf clusters, among other honors. He was just 18 months short of retirement when he was drummed out in 1996. He had joined the service in 1973.

This complicated his situation, said Susan Morgan, who runs Gracepoint, a Tampa organization helping the homeless. Grace­point, through the Home 3 federal program for the homeless, picks up Freeman's $595 rent.

Most programs for homeless veterans require an honorable discharge.

Through Operation Reveille — which brings together all the interests helping veterans, to get homes for 50 of them each Veterans Day — Freeman made connections that helped turn his life around. As the TV played a gospel show at his apartment, he said, "I've been here ever since."

The program was introduced in Tampa by Antoinette Triplett, an Air Force veteran and director of the Tampa Hillsborough Homeless Initiative.

"Without Operation Reveille," Triplett said, "many veterans who have served during combat, but have an other than honorable military discharge status, would still be homeless."

The idea of ending veteran homelessness was always a shoot-the-moon effort, said Blackwood of Haley hospital.

"It was a visionary goal."

Some advocates, like Sara Romeo, chief executive at Tampa Crossroads, say the main challenge locally is a lack of affordable housing. Others, like Society of St. Vincent DePaul chief executive officer Mike Raposa, point to a need for greater coordination.

Raposa blames an inability to "transform the local homeless system to work together to make homelessness rare, brief and nonrecurring."

Bilirakis said the military may have to take more responsibility, arguing that it "spends six months preparing our soldiers for their assignment, and yet we only spend five days preparing them to reintegrate to civilian lives."

Future efforts to end veteran homelessness will depend on the policies of President-elect Donald Trump, who just nominated VA Undersecretary for Health David Shulkin to replace McDonald as secretary. Trump VA campaign plans did not specifically address the issue.

Roe, the veterans affairs committee chairman, knows what the future holds for him, though: "I will work tirelessly with President-elect Trump and the Trump administration to find solutions to this and numerous other issues veterans face."

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.

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