For a while, the main room inside Northeast Portland’s American Legion Post 134 buzzed with laughter.
Service providers and government partners had won federal recognition last year for virtually ending veterans homelessness in our community, and a few dozen people had gathered at the Legion hall on Friday, Feb. 24, to celebrate and give thanks.
But an hour into the party, the merriment gave way to quiet reflection.
Marc Jolin, director of the A Home for Everyone coalition that helped coordinate the A Home for Every Veteran initiative, stood on a small stage bedecked with flags and took the microphone. He reminded the assembled nonprofit workers, veterans and elected officials just how enormous their accomplishment had been.
Multnomah County was the first community on the West Coast to be certified for driving veterans homelessness down to “functional zero,” meaning more veterans are working toward becoming housed on any given day than falling into homelessness.
“Without all of you,” Jolin said, calling for a round of applause, “it just wouldn’t have happened.”
Since January 2015, he noted, some 1,300 veterans have left the streets for permanent housing. The work was made possible by millions of dollars in federal grants that paid not only for apartment vouchers, but also the support staff needed to make sure that once veterans were in housing, they stayed housed.
Providers such as JOIN worked with landlords to reduce deposits and rents, and put veterans atop their lists for potential vacancies. Cascadia Behavioral Health carved an apartment complex out of an office park. Home Forward, the region’s local housing authority, committed dozens of vouchers and put its portfolio of apartments at the ready. And city and county officials worked to track veterans by name, the better to link them to services. They also added hundreds of new shelter beds.
Jolin leads the A Home for Everyone initiative, which shapes a unified, regional policy on ending homelessness, and directs the city and county’s Joint Office of Homeless Services. He said the success of the veterans’ initiative offers hope to those still on the streets.
“If we can do it with veterans, then we can do it with every population,’’ Jolin said. “And if we’re not doing it with every population it’s because we haven’t made the decision to do it. We didn’t have homelessness like this three decades ago. We have it today because we haven’t made the decision as a community that we’re going to end it.”
Ian Davie, chief operating officer for Home Forward, recalled his grandfather, who enlisted to serve in the military after the attack on Pearl Harbor during World War II.
Davie said his grandfather’s sacrifice was met with community support -- help with housing and an education -- when the war was over and he finally came home.
“That is a right everyone should have,” Davie said. “That is a promise we’ve been trying to fulfill here, for everyone, through this veterans initiative.”
Multnomah County Commissioner Jessica Vega Pederson called the effort “a huge success” and “a great thing to build on.” But she also acknowledged that its success was built on a massive investment from the federal government. Will that federal assistance remain available for veterans under the Trump administration, let alone for others in need?
“I know that’s something we’re all concerned about, that future, what’s going to happen with this new administration,” she said. At Multnomah County, “we are going to be fighting for you every step of the way.”
Multnomah County Commissioner Sharon Meieran, who also works as an emergency room doctor, praised the veterans initiative and offered her support for ending homelessness.
““I see, on the front line of our healthcare system, what happens when people do not have a roof over their head, do not have a safe place to take care of a physical illness, a mental illness or just their basic needs,” she said. “I will be there with Jessica and the rest of our board to support you and work with you in whatever way we can.”