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SALT LAKE CITY — Four years ago, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs announced the goal of ending veteran homelessness by the end of 2015.
Friday, Salt Lake City and the nation were getting closer to reaching that goal. The number of homeless veterans across the country has dropped by more than 17 percent, according to Veterans Affairs.
Earlier this year, area service providers and the VA identified 100 chronically homeless veterans living in Salt Lake City in need. So far, 61 have found housing, and the goal is to place 39 veterans into apartments by the end of the month.
During the annual VA homeless veterans Stand Down event Friday at the George E. Wahlen VA Medical Center, veterans received a wide array of services, including food, shelter, clothing and health screenings, VA and Social Security benefits counseling, and referrals to a variety of other necessary services, such as housing, employment and substance abuse treatment.
“We didn’t have anything except for what we have on,” said John Flinders, an Army veteran who is currently homeless. “It’s really a shock to you. You’ve got all of these things going through your mind, (like) what am I going to do?”
Medical problems related to disability led to financial problems, Flinders said.
While he was getting a medical checkup, a flu shot and a haircut, his wife, Lauri, was looking through and picking up warm clothing. They said they are grateful for the help.
“I don’t know what we’d do without it,” Lauri Flinders said.
They hope to be moving into an apartment in the next few weeks.
For many veterans who come to the one-day event, the warm clothing items could truly mean the difference between life and death on the street.
Steve Prestwich is a Marine who was volunteering at the Stand Down event Friday. He has served veterans for nearly four decades.
“Some of these folks won’t stay in shelters,” Prestwich said. “They’ll stay by the rivers; they’ll stay in the mountains. This is important for them to be able to get the winter gear that they need to survive.”
Since the 2009 proclamation, the VA and its community partners have found housing for 400 veterans. The current goal is to house 100 chronically homeless veterans in 100 days.
Area service providers — including the VA Salt Lake City Health Care System, Housing Authority of Salt Lake City, Housing Authority of the County of Salt Lake, The Road Home, Diamond J. Management and Volunteers of America — have worked to find housing for 61 of the most chronic cases of veteran homelessness.
Community partners aim to place 39 veterans into apartments over the next few weeks.
They've sacrificed so much for our country and to see our veterans homeless, oftentimes with addiction and mental illness, not getting the care and support from our community is really … not a good reflection on us as a community.
–Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker
Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker said helping veterans find housing is a community effort, but there is still a lot of distrust among many veterans.
“It has taken an incredible outreach to find our veterans, gain their trust, and to bring them into shelter and support,” Becker said.
Friday, the mayor signed a proclamation declaring November as Housing Veterans Month.
“They’ve sacrificed so much for our country," Becker said, "and to see our veterans homeless, oftentimes with addiction and mental illness, not getting the care and support from our community is really … not a good reflection on us as a community.”
With intensive efforts to establish trust and housing, community groups have been able to bring homeless veterans in from the cold.
“Many times the homeless are folks who simply cannot adapt easily and are fearful of interacting with institutions,” Becker said.
With the help of the VA and community partners, Salt Lake City is very close to ending homelessness among veterans, he added.
“We’ve been able to make a huge dent in our chronically homeless population,” Becker said. “I know we can achieve that goal of ending homelessness together.”
Contributing: Viviane Vo-Duc