In 2009, the federal government set a goal to end veterans homelessness in five years. While that deadline has passed, additional housing programs have reached veterans across the region.
“We are finally seeing that long-term change in people’s lives. It’s fantastic,” said Rachel Bauske, the Volunteers of America Southwest Colorado director. She oversees the Durango Community Shelter and Veteran Transitional Housing.
In the last two years, VOA programs have helped move 91 veterans who were homeless or at risk of being homeless into stable housing. This was about 80 percent of those who came in for help, and most seeking help came from the five-county region the VOA serves, she said.
Among them was Lloyd Muller, who served in the Army in the 1970s. He moved into his apartment in the Iron Horse Inn about three weeks ago after spending several months in the Veteran Transitional Housing Program at the Durango Community Shelter.
“Thank goodness, I’m back to normal,” he said.
Muller left most of his possessions in California when he moved in with a brother in Cortez.
He had planned to help his brother with his troubled nephew and save a little money on living expenses because he lives on a fixed disability income. But the move didn’t work out as planned.
“It took my whole life and dumped it upside down,” he said.
Following disagreements with his family, he was living in a room without access to the rest of the house.
Unable to find affordable housing in Cortez and without a car to leave, he needed help.
So he called the Disabled American Veterans Outreach Program in Cortez and VOA veteran advocates and helped him move into the shelter. His dog Suzzie moved into La Plata County Humane Society where she stayed free of charge.
Before October 2012, veterans could stay three weeks at the shelter unless they found employment, which would allow them to apply for an additional 3½ months, Bauske said.
“Sometimes they needed more time to settle and feel safe,” she said.
Veterans can now stay up to two years, although the goal is to house veterans in 60 to 90 days.
Through the Back Home program, the VOA also works to find housing for veterans who do not want to move into the shelter or are not allowed to move into the shelter because they are struggling with addiction.
Providing housing first allows veterans hired as case managers to work with clients on other goals, such as sobriety, employment and health care in a stable environment.
“If somebody doesn’t have a home, they are going to feel like they are constantly in a state of crisis,” Bauske said.
The Department of Veterans Affairs is focusing more on housing first rather than transitional housing in shelters, she said.
About 47,700 less veterans were homeless nationally on a single night in 2015.
It is unknown how many veterans are homeless regionally.
“It’s very challenging to track veterans that are homeless if they don’t want to be tracked,” Bauske said.
Ending veteran homelessness is challenging regionally because of the lack of transportation and affordable housing, she said.
But the programs introduced in 2012 reached veterans who had been coming to VOA for help for years.
To help reach veterans, the VOA hired all veterans to work with them, and for the last two years all the advocate positions have been filled by veterans, she said.
In addition, a veteran advocate holds weekly meetings just for veterans at the shelter to work on life skills, such as conflict resolution, and these meetings also help create a support system, she said.
VA funding supports an advocate position dedicated to veterans at the shelter and 22 percent of the transitional housing program costs at the shelter.
Private donations, local government contributions and other sources help make up the rest.
“We would not be able to keep the doors open if we did not have an incredibly generous community,” she said.
As for Lloyd, he plans to stay in Durango and volunteer at the shelter, the food bank and join the American Legion.