Army veteran James Wallace walked in the front door of a freshly-renovated duplex apartment in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, as his wife, Jamie Jones, entered through the back, lugging a garbage bag full of clothes.
"Wow, wow," Wallace said, surveying their new home.
They had been in a shelter the night before, but tonight they would be in their own bed, thanks to an intense collaboration by local agencies, charities and advocates to house homeless veterans.
Six years ago, the White House and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs set an ambitious goal to end homelessness among veterans by the end of 2015.
That won't happen. But there has been progress, with thousands of veterans like Wallace leaving shelters or coming off the streets into permanent housing. Since 2009, more than 25,000 veterans around the country have found permanent housing, while the number considered homeless has fallen more than a third.
And leaders in a number of cities, including Winston-Salem, say they've achieved the goal of ending veteran homelessness, even though the nation as a whole has not. Just a few weeks ago, Winston-Salem and surrounding Forsyth County announced they had met the standards set by the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness.
That doesn't mean there aren't any more homeless vets in the county, or that there won't be more. But it does mean the community has built a system designed to quickly identify homeless vets and offer them housing.
"A lot of it is about building partnerships, building collaborations and working together," said Andrea Kurtz of the Forsyth County United Way, the director of the local commission on ending homelessness.
"Particularly in social services we talk a lot about people becoming self-reliant, about people becoming independent and people going out on their own," Kurtz said. "But the truth of the matter is, people in the world who are most successful aren't independent, they aren't self-reliant. They are connected into a community, and they have a community of support behind them."
In Forsyth County, creating that system meant pulling together a loose network of sometimes independent-minded charities, donors, government agencies and employers.
For instance, a charity called Whole Man Ministries just renovated the row of five small brick homes where Jones and Wallace moved in. It initially wanted to use them for a transitional housing program, Kurtz said. But the ministry was willing to shift gears when it learned the need for permanent housing was greater.
New policy puts "housing first"
Winston-Salem's approach is part of a national shift to a policy called "housing first." It puts the emphasis on getting homeless people into permanent housing quickly, rather than requiring them to first get treatment for issues that might have contributed to their homelessness, like substance abuse or mental illness.
Wallace had no such issues, but benefited from the speed and focus on permanent housing that are central to the approach.
Only a modest number of people need the more expensive transitional housing approach, so putting more people into permanent housing stretches the scarce funding so that more people can be housed, say advocates for the homeless.
Terry Allebaugh of the North Carolina Department of Military and Veterans Affairs said "housing first" has been a crucial ingredient throughout the state and nation, including in Fayetteville and Cumberland County, which also reached the milestone.
"There has been a shift from instead of 'let's build more shelters for veterans,' to let's focus on getting veterans into permanent housing," Allebaugh said. "So just being clear about your goals has provided a lot for our communities."
He said another big piece of the solution is the hundreds of millions of dollars in new federal funding for housing veterans.
Several studies, including one in Charlotte in 2014, have found that housing a homeless person saves society thousands of dollars — maybe tens of thousands — a year by reducing things like emergency room visits, jail stays and costs for public defenders.
"So, it's not only a call to action with measurable outcomes, but it's also resourced by the federal government," Allebaugh said.
"That's probably what saved my life"
Allebaugh says it helps that most people, regardless of their politics, sympathize with homeless veterans. And he says the same methods being used in Winston-Salem could end homelessness generally, not just for veterans. The collaborative approach has proven to be effective even in cases where vets need transitional housing.
Like that of Navy Veteran Robert Worley.
"I got to getting in trouble from alcohol and my my life became unmanageable," Worley said. "Next thing I know, I couldn't hold a job, I was being chronically homeless. I would stay on people's couches for awhile, and that wouldn't last, they'd get tired of it."
Worley caused so much trouble when he was drunk that he was fired from a series of jobs — even from a carnival — and booted out of housing in several places.
Now, he has his own apartment and is attending Winston-Salem State University, working toward a bachelor's degree in social work.
"I qualified for a Pell Grant and student loans, and it's been working out pretty good," he said.
It took that Winston-Salem network to get him there. After getting out of jail, where he was locked up for an old drunk driving charge, he ended up in a homeless shelter. There, Worley met the program director for a new transitional housing facility called Veterans Helping Veterans Heal. He pointed Worley to an outpatient program for alcoholics.
"And that's probably what saved my life," he said.
In 2013, Worley was able to move into VHVH, as it's called. The 24-bed facility is the product of collaboration. It was built with grants from the VA and BB&T bank. It's run with VA funding and local donations.
VHVH counseled Worley on the skills he needs for living inside society rather than outside.
"I couldn't have never done it without Veterans Helping Veterans Heal," he said, "because I had that security and I had a place to stay."
Now he's got a different place to stay: his own apartment. And he has plans to become a VA social worker.
He wants to help other troubled veterans fit back into society, too.
This story is a part of the American Homefront Project — a joint effort of KPCC, KUOW and WUNC — reporting on American military life and veterans.