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How Riverside County reached 'functional zero' veteran homelessness

File: Daniel Harmon, a veteran of the wars in both Afghanistan and Iraq, looks out the window of his room at the Hollywood Veterans Center in Los Angeles. The facility provides housing to homeless vets. David P Gilkey/NPR

Homelessness continues to be a huge problem in Southern California, but Riverside County says that they've managed to reach "functional zero" veteran homelessness. As the 10th most populous county in the country, it's the largest county to hit this benchmark, Lynne Brockmeier with the Riverside University Health System's Behavioral Health Housing Crisis Response Team told KPCC.

According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, hitting functional zero means they've instituted "a well-coordinated and efficient community system that assures homelessness is rare, brief and non-recurring and no Veteran is forced to live on the street." The county Board of Supervisors issued a proclamation last week celebrating this accomplishment.

Making veterans a priority

The leading factors in reaching functional zero, according to Brockmeier, have been collaborating with other groups and developing a process to prioritize veterans.

"Virtually every agency or department or nonprofit within our community has identified that veterans are a priority for us. So our public housing authority, for example, set aside a priority for veterans with their Section 8 vouchers," Brockmeier said. "That really helped us shift the dynamic."

Another tool in the county's toolbox: using actual veterans on their outreach and engagement teams.

"So because we can connect with the veteran, based on that similarity that they have in experience, it allows the veteran to respond to them in a different way," Brockmeier said.

The county is also collaborating with law enforcement, developing different protocols which Brockmeier said has helped with the problem of veterans being resistant to interacting with law enforcement. She said that they now have officers at meetings helping to review cases.

"There's been a whole culture shift in our county around meeting the needs of those who are living on the street," Brockmeier said.

Taking a micro view of homelessness

The final piece Brockmeier said has been key: treating veterans as individuals.

"We recognized in the very beginning that this isn't a large group with common factors — it's really about an individual household, with a housing crisis, who has a specific housing need. So it's a housing crisis, and many of them have multiple barriers, and while they're on the streets, those barriers really can't be addressed in the same way as they can in housing," Brockmeier said.

She added that they found that focusing on the homeless globally limited what they could do to help individuals.

"It's an individual housing crisis, in all its uniqueness, so we focus on one home, is how we start, and that's how we're going to end — one home at a time. One individual and their family at a time," Brockmeier said.

Since January 2015, the county has housed approximately 585 veterans, Brockmeier said. The county has worked with veterans of all ages, from veterans who were involved in current military engagements to veterans who were 90 years old. One of the largest groups the county worked with is Vietnam-era vets. She said that the Vietnam veterans have struggled and been more resistant to outreach and engagement.

"So we've had to develop some protocols to work with them specifically, because they have some resistance to working with anyone who's connected to the federal government," Brockmeier said.

Now the county has to maintain these systems and keep functional zero veteran homelessness happening — and continue working to expand it beyond veterans. Brockmeier said that their system isn't just focused on veterans, but on all homeless individuals in Riverside County, even though veterans are a priority.