Moral Low Ground

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Interview: Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton on Ending Chronic Veteran Homelessness

Mayor Greg Stanton has big ideas about ending homelessness in Phoenix (Photo: Christopher Leone)

Mayor Greg Stanton has big ideas about ending homelessness in Phoenix (Photo: Christopher Leone)

Phoenix, Arizona, America’s sixth-largest city, recently announced it had become the first in the nation to effectively put an end to chronic veteran homelessness.

Greg Stanton, the city’s Democratic mayor, called the successful effort to get the city’s 222 chronically homeless veterans into permanent housing a “great case of government, non-profit, business, charity and the faith community working seamlessly together.” Phoenix’s success has inspired other cities to commit to ending chronic veteran homelessness; just last month, Salt Lake City, which had been engaged in a friendly competition with Phoenix to see who would be the first to get all its homeless veterans off the streets, announced that it too had eradicated chronic veteran homelessness.

Moral Low Ground editor Brett Wilkins recently spoke with Mayor Stanton about his city’s remarkable achievement, and the positive, even critical, role government can play in housing homeless vets.

Moral Low Ground: Congratulations on ending chronic veteran homelessness. What lessons can Phoenix teach other cities about this?

Stanton: Every city is different and has its own unique circumstances, but in Phoenix, I simply made [reducing chronic veteran homelessness] one of my top goals. It was a clear priority of the city of Phoenix and we had incredible people committed to this goal. Everyone checked their egos at the door to focus on achieving this goal. We made it a priority in our city budget.

We wanted to make sure that HUD vouchers were used first and foremost for veterans. We re-prioritized our housing [agenda] so veterans were put at the top of the list. Housing vouchers were given to those with the greatest need, not necessarily those who were on the waiting list the longest.

MLG: Phoenix chose a ‘housing first’ model to tackle chronic veteran homelessness– getting vets off the streets and into permanent housing, without preconditions, as a first step in the recovery process.

Stanton: We adopted a housing-first model, which is so popular around the country right now, [because] it’s the right model. Once you get a roof over that homeless person’s head, and let’s say that person has drug or alcohol issues, they may fall off the wagon occasionally. They don’t lose their housing when that occurs. They’re allowed to stay in the housing and continue their recovery.

MLG: That sounds like a very pragmatic way of addressing the issue.

Stanton: We had to wrap services around people. If they had a substance abuse issue, if they had a mental health issue, they got the services to go along with [housing] so they could break the cycle of homelessness. So our success rate… once we got a homeless veteran into housing was about 93 percent, which is so much more successful than traditional housing programs.

In the city of Phoenix, the average length of time on the street for our chronically homeless veterans was eight years. Many of them had serious issues, which means they needed serious help.

It’s not a low-cost model. Providing housing plus services is more expensive. But having them on the street, with all the health care and other issues and costs associated with that, [ours is] actually a less expensive model compared to the alternative

MLG: Talk about the role of the Community Bridges navigators, the peer support professionals working with Project H3 VETS who find and help homeless vets.

Stanton: We had to increase resources to make sure that we had more navigators on the streets. The navigators are the unsung heroes of the effort not only in Phoenix, but across the country, in the effort to end chronic homelessness. They are often former homeless people themselves, many of them are veterans. They go out in the middle of the night to try to build a trust relationship with homeless people to get them off the streets, get a roof over their heads, and hopefully get the help they need from the various non-profits that provide services.

MLG: What do you think the long-term prospects are for these vets?

Stanton: We’re going to make sure that not only do they have a roof over their head, they’re going to get the treatment they need to end their cycle of homelessness. It’s almost a mentality shift. So many homeless people were, at one point in their lives, solidly middle class. And things have happened in their lives where they ended up on the streets. Those same people, given a roof over their heads and given the treatment they need, can be solidly middle class, fully employed and paying taxes again too. So there’s also en element of workforce here– these are people that can be fully integrated back into our economy and become middle class citizens in our community.

MLG: Now that you’ve successfully ended chronic veteran homelessness, what’s next? What about the general homeless population in Phoenix?

Stanton: We’ve accomplished a milestone, but this is not the end of the game for Phoenix. The lessons we have learned in ending chronic homelessness among our veteran population are the exact same lessons we’re going to utilize to end chronic homelessness among the broader population.

I’m often asked, ‘why are you focusing on veterans?’ And the answer is, we’re starting with veterans. It’s the right thing to do for people who have honorably served our country. It’s a shame that so many of our veterans are on the streets and I’m blessed that as mayor I can do something about it. But we value other people as well and we’re going to end chronic homelessness among our entire population. And the lessons we’ve learned about putting roofs over peoples’ heads, providing support services, providing employment services– those are the exact same lessons we’re going to apply when accomplishing the broader goal of ending chronic homelessness among the whole population. So we’re just getting started. This is an important milestone, but we’re going to roll up our sleeves and get right back to work.

MLG: What would you say to those who claim it’s a waste of time and resources to try to help the chronically homeless, who they say are ‘lost causes’ who can’t, or don’t want, to be helped and who will remain, well, chronically homeless?

Stanton: There are no lost causes. There are no throw-away people in my city. Everyone has value. My attitude is that there but for the grace of God go any of us. My outlook on helping the homeless is, ‘that could be me someday if my life doesn’t work out, for whatever reason.’ So when helping chronically homeless veterans, not only are we doing right by those who have served their country, we’re also doing right by ourselves, because that could be us as well.

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2 Comments

  1. linda bayerFebruary 14, 2014 at 12:56 pmReply

    Every city should follow this Mayor’s lead. Good for him!

    • Brett WilkinsFebruary 14, 2014 at 1:19 pmReplyAuthor

      Yes, if we applied this to our homeless problem here in San Francisco, where more than 10,000 people live on the streets– and by statistical inference, at least a couple thousand vets, who knows what sort of improvements we could achieve?

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