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Denton County could be Texas’ 5th community to end veteran homelessness

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An ongoing partnership between Denton County and United Way of Denton County continues to work towards ending veteran homelessness, with some organizers believing Denton could be the next Texas community to achieve the goal.

Texas has four communities that managed to end veteran homelessness: Abilene, Austin, Houston and San Antonio. Houston was the second city in the nation to accomplish the challenge, according to the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness.

There are 640 households in Denton County categorized as actively homeless since Feb. 28, according to United Way’s homeless dashboard. Of those households, 41 identified as veterans, with two families and 39 individuals, according to United Way.

“Just my estimation, I do see us being one of the communities that will end veteran homelessness soon in the state of Texas,” said Elena Lusk, United Way’s director of housing. “If you’re looking at us against other communities that are on that same path, we have put a lot of the groundwork in making sure that homelessness is rare, brief and non-recurring, but especially for veterans.”

The city of Denton joined the national Mayors Challenge to End Veteran Homelessness in 2018. While still a city initiative under the current administration, the efforts are directed more to a county level, said Courtney Douangdara, deputy director for Denton’s community services.

“Our investment, time and money [are] intentionally at the county level to ensure that this conversation and whatever solutions are implemented are countywide,” Douangdara said.

This county-wide approach to ending veteran homelessness is a necessity, said Denton Mayor Gerard Hudspeth.

“It is an issue that requires more than just a single city or a single solution [and] that takes all hands on deck to try to address it,” Hudspeth said. “[…] From a funding standpoint, [a county-wide approach] helps because there are some federal funds that may not come directly to a city but would go to Denton County.”

New projects and efforts to end veteran homelessness are expected to be announced in the next three to four months by the Denton County Homeless Leadership Team, said Lusk. Denton County initially aimed to end veteran homelessness by 2020, but the start of the COVID-19 pandemic became an obstacle, Lusk said.

“When people are in crisis, and everyone around you is in crisis, it is hard to focus on one goal when you’re just trying to meet basic needs for the entire community,” Lusk said. “Now that we’re coming out of that crisis, we’re able to focus more on our initiatives that were happening pre-COVID.”

During the pandemic, the county launched a focused effort on ending veteran homelessness by issuing the 100-Day Challenge in 2021. Out of 17 identified veterans experiencing homelessness on United Way’s housing priority list, 11 veterans were housed. Community volunteers created “welcome home” kits for the veterans, which included utensils, shower rods and “all those little things you do not necessarily have if you’re coming from off the streets,” Lusk said.

Douangdara said the challenge “housed a good percentage of the veterans experiencing homelessness at the time” and also managed to surface other homeless veterans that were not identified beforehand. 

“Statistically, veterans are not always as likely to self-identify if they are experiencing homelessness for a lot of reasons [like] trauma, stigma [and] lots of different things,” Douangdara said. “Our interpretation of the results from that challenge was that veterans in our community saw that more resources were available and saw that people were actually getting assistance. [They] felt safer to access services and identify themselves as veterans to try [to] seek assistance and housing.”

Despite the progress achieved, Douangdara said she still sees challenges that need to be addressed to end veteran homelessness in the county.

“We do have a [Veterans Affairs] mental health clinic here, but we don’t have a VA hospital in our county,” Douangdara said. “Getting veterans access to physical and mental health services can be a little bit more challenging.”

Featured Illustration By Erika Sevilla

Article Originally Published by Jeffrey Ruiz on North Texas Daily

Source: North Texas Daily

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