VA awards $1.16 million grant to get vets into housing — Here’s how strategies are changing

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Logo for the Eastern Carolina Housing Organization, or ECHO. (Source: ECHO)

MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. (WBTW) — A $1.16 million grant from the Department of Veterans Affairs hopes to continue the success of a Myrtle Beach program that has helped more than 100 people find permanent homes.

The Grant Per Diem funding will be used to help secure stability, increase skill levels and create individual-style temporary housing units — approaches that, while fairly new in the Myrtle Beach area, have seen tremendous victories in reducing and preventing people from losing housing. 

A shift in mindset

Funding self-sufficiency programs is a key way that local agencies have addressed homelessness in the last several years.

“If you don’t give people the tools to be successful, you can’t expect someone to just know,” said Blakely Roof, the president and CEO of the United Way of Horry County. “Just like if you are bringing them for a job, or if you kid is going to school, you can’t expect them to read, or do math, or start a new job.”

The area United Way funds the back-to-life program at New Directions, an Horry County homeless shelter. The nonprofit also funds two mental health agencies that provide counseling to uninsured people, along with other organizations that help with rent and utility assistance. 

People without housing commonly end up on the streets because of mental illness, a drug addiction, or a combination of both.

Roof said people without housing might not automatically know how to have a job, pay bills or build a resume. Some don’t have identification, which can make it nearly impossible to find employment, housing or open a bank account.

“The hope is that when they’re set up for success, they aren’t going to go back and be in that situation again,” Roof said. 

While she said that there is still a need for emergency beds in shelters, self-sufficiency programs are the more effective long-term solution.

That can include explaining that a bill is due on the due date, which Roof said some people don’t understand, because they assume the due date is when the power would be turned off. Financial education, she said, is also a big part of the issue.

“People legitimately don’t know how to pay bills,” she said. “They don’t understand. They weren’t taught in school. Their parents don’t know.”

Even finding housing can be an challenge, she said, when the average wage in Myrtle Beach is $10.77 an hour, and the average cost of an apartment more than $900 a month. It’s easy to become homeless, or to have a job so far away that getting there and paying childcare costs can make it unaffordable. 

“Where we are now, you can’t find a place to rent,” Roof said. “There is literally not enough housing, period, let alone affordable housing.”

Women who are escaping a domestic violence situation essentially have to start over and learn skills their abuser might have controlled.

Another piece is clearing up misconceptions surrounding people who don’t have housing.

“They see in their mind that a homeless person is someone who they want to be homeless, and they want to do drugs all day,” Roof said. “There are people who want to be homeless, but it is a small, small percentage of people.”

The United Way of Horry County typically reviews funding applications a year in advance. However, it hasn’t opened that process up like normal because of the pandemic and a projected decrease in revenues. Instead, it has funded basic needs and services, which include shelter, food, health and childcare services.

A new process, which may come in 2023, will require organizations to state how they will measure their outcomes, which Roof said will help the United Way to analyze which interventions are the most effective.

Myrtle Beach now a veteran hotspot

Of the 34,695 people who live inside of Myrtle Beach’s city limits, 2,396 are veterans, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau. 

That number continues to grow as veterans see that the Carolinas are a good place to be housed, according to Meg Boye, the supervisor of the VA transitional housing program. It’s causing veterans to arrive from across the country — and creating a need for more services to help them.

“We are definitely combating that number in our specific area,” Boyle said. 

The $1.16 million grant is from the Ralph H. Johnson Veterans Affairs Health Care System and will go to the Eastern Carolina Homeless Organization, also known as ECHO, starting next month. 

The money will go towards funding ECHO services that will provide individual housing units to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. The funds will also be used to provide case manager positions,  give grants to veterans with special needs and continue self-sufficiency programs. 

Boye said it’s not a new approach for the agency, which has seen the number of veterans nationwide who are without housing get reduced by half over the last decade. However, it is new to the Myrtle Beach area. 

The local transitional housing program started three years ago. 

“We knew that the need was greater,” Boyle said. 

The grant works to help veterans secure an income, get medical health care and build support systems. Its goal is to get veterans into permanent housing within 90 days. 

The current setup has two veterans in a bedroom who share a bathroom. That will be changed to individual units, which are predicted to not only increase safety with the virus, but give veterans a morale boost, as well. 

“It makes them feel human again, I’ve been told,” Boyle said. 

Veterans will work individually with a case manager to create a plan and learn skills they might have lost on the street, which can include knowing how to do laundry.

The Myrtle Beach program has seen promising numbers. The Myrtle Beach facility was in the 93th percentile for veterans success for the 2020 fiscal year, according to Boyle, meaning that it performed 93% higher than other facilities.

The number of veterans who are being helped is also increasing. There were 73 veterans who found permanent housing during the 2020 fiscal year. By the end of 2021 fiscal year’s third quarter, that had already reached 107.

About 85% of the people ECHO — which is receiving the grant — helps are in Horry County, according the organization’s director, Joey Smoak. ECHO covers 13 counties in South Carolina, and three in North Carolina.

Smoak said that number includes a large population of veterans in Horry County.

Smoak said the grant will impact 20 beds. It plans to create an additional eight housing units in a building across the street.

ECHO has housed more than 2,500 people since Oct. 2020.

“It is a staggering amount of people,” he said.

He said the reasons why veterans lose housing is the same as the rest of the homeless population, and typically involves substance abuse disorders and untreated mental illness. However, landlords are typically more inclined to providing a lease for a veteran, and the community tends to get involved more and donate toward veterans, which he appreciates. 

More than beds

New Directions, a homeless shelter, has shifted its mindset in the last few years. Previously, its focus had been on providing a bed and a meal.

“When we were established eight years ago, that was what we were about,” said Kathy Jenkins, the shelter’s executive director. “We needed to find a better way than just enabling people to stay homeless.”

It shifted its approach from there, building a case management team and starting partnerships in the community.

Now, when someone comes in, New Directions will help them set a long-term goal, which either falls under permanent housing, recovery or reuniting with their family. The shelter’s staff also looks at why the individual doesn’t have permanent housing and what barriers they need to overcome.

“It’s about changing the way you think about things, the way you think about yourself, the way you think about your goal, think about what caused you to be in this situation in the first place,” Jenkins said. 

That includes sparking hope, obtaining proper identification and getting connected with education programs, counseling and addiction assistance. The shelter has received funding from the city to bring in three peer support specialists who are all recovered addicts who have been without housing at some point in their lives.

They’ve seen success with the new strategy. About 45% of the 1,200 people who use the shelter each year are able to find a positive, permanent housing solution. 

It’s also saving the system millions of dollars a year. Jenkins said it costs $15 a day for someone to stay in the shelter and get services. With the cost of living on the street estimated at $55,000, New Directions’ $1.4 million-budget ends up saving $16 million a year. 

The shelter is still dedicated to providing those initial beds. The men’s shelter, which has 90 beds, is expanding to include 74 more, the maximum amount it can put on its second floor.

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