Baton Rouge 3rd Louisiana city to support program for homeless vets

Baton Rouge will become the third Louisiana city to join the federal government’s Mayors Campaign to End Veteran Homelessness , Mayor-President Kip Holden announced Wednesday.

“Now is the time, the challenge is ours,” said Holden, who was surrounded by city, state and federal officials as well as homeless advocates and the people they help, at the Capital Area Alliance for the Homeless’ shelter and one-stop center at the corner of North 17th and Convention streets.

“No veteran who has served our country, protected our freedom … should be left to live on the street,” Holden said.

First announced by First Lady Michelle Obama and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs earlier this summer, the Mayors Campaign is a multi-agency effort to get homeless veterans into stable, affordable housing as quickly as possible, find resources to help those who are ineligible for Veterans Affairs assistance and offer counseling and other services for those who need it, the mayor said.

One of the goals of the program, Holden said, is to teach the veterans to be self-sufficient once they get into affordable housing.

The campaign is the latest federal push to address the homeless problem, following the Opening Doors program implemented in 2010, according to a release by Holden’s office. Since that program began, the homeless veterans population across the nation dropped by 24 percent.

Holden joins Louisiana mayors Mitch Landrieu in New Orleans and Cedric Glover in Shreveport to support the program. Across the country, 77 mayors, four governors and four county officials have joined the crusade.

“I think this is a great thing for the city,” said Michael Acaldo, president and CEO of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul shelter and kitchen across the street from the one-stop center. “I just wish more mayors would adopt it.”

Holden said that “in the weeks and months ahead, we will work to develop a specific outreach that is right for our community.”

Holden referenced an HUD point-in-time report in 2014 that estimates 38 veterans are among Baton Rouge’s 665 homeless population, about 6 percent. That number dropped significantly from 2013 when HUD estimated 96 homeless veterans were among a homeless population of 833, about 12 percent.

Overall, HUD estimates there are 49,933 homeless veterans in the U.S., a 33 percent drop from 2010, when the agency’s estimate was 74,770 homeless veterans.

“It’s a travesty and something that should not exist in a country as great as this,” said Fred Tombar III, executive director of the Louisiana Housing Corporation.

Acaldo said he thinks the percentage of veterans in the homeless population in Baton Rouge may be slightly higher than 6 percent, possibly closer to 10 percent, especially with more women veterans coming into the SVdP kitchen and shelter.

Richard Murray, executive director of the East Baton Rouge Housing Authority, said they assist 25 homeless veterans and are awaiting word from the federal housing authority on 24 HUD Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing vouchers that would give Murray’s agency money to house and assist additional veterans.

Local housing officials are keeping their ears to the ground for any other federal funding and grant programs aimed at providing housing for homeless veterans, Murray said. They are also trying to corral funds to build 50 new housing units in Old South Baton Rouge, some of which would go to housing homeless veterans, and 100 housing units for the elderly and disabled.

One person in the audience excited to hear Wednesday’s announcement was veteran Warren Lock, 55, who said he has been homeless three times in a 10-year span after moving to the Capital City from Abbeville to escape the culture of drugs and alcohol around him.

He knows the challenges returning veterans face, from substance abuse to the psychological hurdles. He said he faced those challenges after serving in the U.S. Air Force from 1977 to 1980.

“My job is in the computer lab, but I come here (the Capital Area Alliance shelter) so I can spot vets,” he said. “I’m here all the time, like a street sign saying, ‘If you are a veteran, come in, we have services.’ ”