Lawrence Forbes couldn’t have been happier when he got the keys to his furnished studio apartment near Nellis Air Force Base.
The 53-year-old veteran had been homeless for about a year after medical bills from two back surgeries piled up. With the help of programs at the Salvation Army of Southern Nevada, he was able to move into his own place in April.
It was his third bout of homelessness since serving in the U.S. Army from 1977 to 1980
“It was like this big weight had been lifted off me,” he recalled on Wednesday afternoon. “There’s nothing like your own (place).”
Over the last two years, the population of homeless veterans in Clark County decreased by 35.6 percent, according to the 2013 Southern Nevada Homeless Census & Survey released earlier this month and conducted by the Southern Nevada Regional Planning Coalition.
Nationwide, there was an 18 percent decrease in the number of homeless veterans during the last two years.
The local decline is in line with an ambitious goal set by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to end veteran homelessness by 2015.
However, some local officials say that’s realistic only if there are no cuts to funding and resources to help combat the problem.
The federal Veteran Affairs Supportive Housing program, also known as HUD VASH, has been vital in meeting the goal of ending homelessness among veterans, said Carolyn Hughes, chief of social work service at the Veterans Affairs Southern Nevada Healthcare System. The program locally provides rental vouchers and case management for veterans in partnership with the local Veterans Affairs office and the Southern Nevada Regional Housing Authority.
It began five or six years ago with an effort “to try to find any (homeless) veteran that we can find,” she said.
During the last two years — as of Jan. 23 to 24 when the homeless census count was conducted — a total of 563 homeless veterans had moved into permanent housing through the program. In addition, nearly 1,000 homeless people were placed into permanent housing through other programs that are run by local nonprofit organizations and local governments, such as the one that assisted Forbes.
The homeless census is conducted every two years and its required for receiving federal grants for homeless programs.
The total for the 2011 Continuum of Care award, a federal grant that supports Southern Nevada programs for the homeless, was $6,630,235 and the 2012 application request was $6,566,438, according to Tyrone Thompson, who is the regional initiatives coordinator for the Southern Nevada Regional Planning Coalition and a Democratic assemblyman for District 17 in North Las Vegas.
The decreasing homeless numbers won’t have an impact on Southern Nevada’s ability to receive more funding in coming years, especially funding to continue to house more homeless veterans, officials said.
Bringing the numbers down is actually a positive step, Thompson said.
“It’s good when we show that we are utilizing the vouchers,” he said.
The more progress communities make toward ending homelessness among veterans, the better the communities look to the federal government, said Michele Fuller-Hallauer, continuum of care coordinator for the coalition.
“They are working very closely with us to make sure that we have the resources necessary so that we can meet that goal,” she said.
In fact, the local Veterans Affairs office will receive an additional 250 vouchers effective July 1. That’s on top of the 630 housing vouchers that the Southern Nevada Regional Housing Authority already administers, said Deloris Sawyer, director of housing programs with the housing authority.
“They do look back at your success rate,” she said.
After meeting the criteria for the Veteran Affairs Supportive Housing program, veterans are able to live anywhere in the community, but before they move in, the housing authority inspects the unit, Sawyer said. Veterans Affairs then provides intensive case management.
The case management service is to help connect veterans with other resources they may need, such as medicine, Thompson said. “Most importantly to ensure that they remain stable and remain in their house,” he said.
As men and women transition back into civilian life, the federal government and local organizations can help them avoid homelessness, said Barbara Poppe, executive director of the U.S. Interagency Council on Ending Homelessness.
“We have an obligation for every person who put on a uniform to serve this country,” she said last week during a Veterans Affairs Task Force session at the U.S. Conference of Mayors in Las Vegas.
Over the last two years, veteran homelessness decreased by 18 percent nationwide, Poppe said, crediting the increased federal focus on the issue. “An 18 percent reduction in the midst of a great recession.”
Local homeless veterans still account for an 11.8 percent of Clark County’s total homeless population of 7,355, according to this year’s homeless census count. It is estimated that on any given night, there are about 866 homeless veterans in the county.
That’s a drop from about 1,350 homeless veterans in 2011, and 2,262 in 2009, previous census counts show.
But going from 866 to zero in the next two years might not be easy.
“I think it is a very strong challenge but I think it’s doable in this community,” Hughes said.
Sawyer said meeting that goal will depend on future funding.
“I think it’s realistic as along as we receive the funding and the resources,” she said.
Contact Yesenia Amaro at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0440.