A once-homeless Oglala Sioux Tribe Veteran, his wife and two children now have a permanent home on South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Reservation, thanks to a new, joint Housing and Urban Development (HUD)-VA demonstration program that aims to end homelessness among Veterans on tribal lands.
The Lakota Veteran is just one of an estimated 500 Native American Veterans who is expected to benefit from housing and supportive services provided under the first-ever Tribal HUD-VASH program, which launched in early January 2016.
Among the 26 tribes sharing $5.9 million in assistance, the Oglala Sioux Tribe is using its $190,898 allocation to house 20 Veterans residing on the sprawling, southwest South Dakota reservation—a place of storied history and diverse topography but bedeviled by modern problems like persistent poverty, high unemployment and extreme homelessness.
Congress expands successful program to Tribes
For about eight years, the standard HUD-VASH program has provided thousands of Veterans with case management and supportive services to help them sustain housing and not return to homelessness.
Yet extending HUD-VASH to tribal lands like Pine Ridge was no easy feat. That’s because legal rules prevented tribes and tribally designated housing entities from participating in HUD-VASH.
We were thankful for the act of Congress in December 2014 that gave VA and HUD the authority and funding for the Tribal HUD-VASH program. American Indian and Alaska Native Veterans who are homeless or at risk of homelessness and who are living on or near a reservation or other Indian areas are eligible for this critical assistance.
“Since 2008, more than 84,000 vouchers have been awarded, over 162,000 homeless Veterans have been served through HUD-VASH and more than 117,600 move-ins have occurred, resulting in significant progress in ending Veteran homelessness on a community by community basis,” said VA Secretary Bob McDonald. “Congress’ admirable move to expand this highly effective program to tribal areas provides a new tool to make sure more Veterans receive the permanent housing and critical services that they’d earned.”
With the green light to provide homeless Native American Veterans in need with tenant- or project-based assistance from HUD and supportive services from VA, we were excited to deliver these services under the “housing first” model. That means that, as with the standard HUD-VASH program, tribal Veterans are provided housing assistance quickly, largely without preconditions such as sobriety. As Veterans move into stable housing, they are then enveloped with wraparound services. We know from experience that this approach fosters long-term stability and prevents a return to homelessness.
HUD and VA worked with tribal leaders to structure the program, getting input on how to determine tribal Veterans’ needs, funding criteria and ways to use the funding to encourage new housing. Borrowing elements of the Indian Housing Block Grant, HUD issued the program rules and invited applications in fall of 2015 and awarded grants early in 2016.
Housing assistance is issued
“The standard HUD-VASH program has taught us that Veterans exiting homelessness do best when stable housing is delivered without unnecessary delay, as called for by Housing First, and coupled with case management and wraparound services,” says Jesse Vazzano, who is VA’s national director of HUD-VASH, and who provides critical guidance for better serving tribal Veterans who are homeless. “VA services will help newly housed Veterans resolve identified physical and mental health needs, substance use, socialization issues, income and employment matters and other concerns for improved self-sufficiency and independence.”
Funded tribal agencies are also collaborating with community agencies, such as tribal Veterans’ services/offices, tribal law enforcement, health agencies, drug and alcohol service providers and others to reach and effectively serve eligible Tribal HUD-VASH Veterans.
Beyond Pine Ridge, Veterans on other tribal lands are being housed at a fast clip. In May, Yakama Nation Housing Authority in Washington joined Pine Ridge in housing the first two of the 20 Veterans it expects to serve with its $145,283 grant.
- View the June 6, 2016, HUD-VASH news release announcing permanent housing for more than 5,200 Veterans under the standard program.
- Visit HUD’s Tribal HUD-VASH webpage to read answers to frequently asked questions about the program.
- Encourage Veterans who are homeless or at risk of homelessness to call 1-877-4AID-VET to get connected to a Tribal HUD-VASH point of contact.
Stephanie Elaine Birdwell is director of VA’s Office of Tribal Government Relations, part of the Office of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs, and a member of the Cherokee Nation. She works to enhance VA’s relationships with 566 tribal governments located in 38 states.