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 for a total statewide count.
Additionally, many of these elusive veterans are transient and not 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 trying to count homeless people in Iowa told IowaWatch.
The number of counters available to take on finding homeless veterans 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,” Dusty Noble, Hawkeye Area Community Action Program (HACAP) veteran advocate in Cedar Rapids since 2014, said.
Finding homeless veterans is important because of a national push to end veteran homelessness and because U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and HUD funding that homeless shelters and anti-poverty organizations like HACAP receive to help the veterans is based on how many are counted as homeless.
The last Housing and Urban development department estimate of homeless veterans in Iowa was 170 on the Jan. 27, 2016. 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,” U.S. Rep. Dave Loebsack, D-Iowa, formerly a member of the House Armed Forces Committee, said. “I have no have doubt in my mind that it under-reports the amount of homeless,” he said about the January HUD count.
The January count is focused on large population centers in Iowa because that’s where most veterans go for shelter or other services, interviews revealed.
Also, “those are the places that are likely to have more volunteers who go out and do the street count,” Ehren Stover-Wright, research director for the Iowa branch of the Institute for Community Alliances, said. His organization is a multi-state organization that is in Des Moines and which collects the data from shelters to communicate the data 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. For example, HUD and the VA partnered to create a voucher called the HUD-VASH that is given out only in areas with a large amount of homeless veterans.
Four criteria exist for functional zero: identifying all veterans experiencing homelessness, providing shelter immediately to homeless veterans who want it, providing limited short-term transitional housing, and having the capacity to swiftly assist veterans into permanent housing.
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 in the United States that is given to Congress each November.
But HACAP’s Noble, who helps conduct the point-in-time count in Linn County, said he knew the local count was not accurate because he had 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, which is Iowa’s second largest behind Polk County.
HACAP partners with groups like the Abbe Center for Community Mental Health’s Projects for Assistance in Transition from Homelessness or PATH, 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 during the early morning hours of July 28.
Doing the summer count carries some risk for volunteers making the counts, Noble said. Volunteers go out after midnight and speak to people in places where some try to hide. The volunteers are trained to be as non-confrontation as possible but still wake sleeping people up in their cars.
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 the rest stops, speaking to people who had been sleeping in their cars and one couple camping along a store building. They were in one of four groups of volunteers trying to find homeless people who weren’t using shelters.
Some people the counters spoke to were not homeless. Some said they were traveling while others objected to being offered help.
Brown asked everyone he talked with whether or not they were a veteran. Brown works with homeless veterans at Willis Dady. He is a veteran himself, serving in the Army from 1985 to 1991 in Germany, Honduras and Colorado.
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.”
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This IowaWatch story was republished by The Hawk Eye (Burlington, IA), The Gazette (Cedar Rapids, IA), Des Moines Register, Sioux City Journal and KMALand.com under IowaWatch’s mission of sharing stories with media partners. Also, Iowa Public Radio talked with writer Thomas Nelson about his reporting on homeless veterans on the Aug. 30, 2016, River to River program.