STURGIS | When the South Dakota Housing for the Homeless Consortium, in partnership with the South Dakota Housing Development Authority, conducted a statewide count of homeless people earlier this year, coordinators found a 19 percent decrease in overall homelessness, compared with 2016.
Conversely, the survey showed a 23 percent increase over the past year in the number of homeless military veterans in South Dakota, 95 percent of whom were sheltered in facilities on the night of the study.
In view of the findings, the Journal asked Bill Fahrenbruck, Healthcare for Homeless Veterans coordinator for the Veterans Administration Black Hills Health Care System, a series of questions related to his agency’s awareness of the issue and its effort to combat homelessness among U.S. military veterans. Here are his responses:
Q: How pressing is the problem of homelessness among military veterans?
A: The VA Black Hills Health Care System is certainly aware of the problem of homelessness among veterans. VA Black Hills has a dedicated service line working to identify and assist veterans who are homeless or at risk for becoming homeless. We prioritize specialized programming that targets the complex circumstances and challenges veterans face that may contribute to or prolong homelessness.
Q: In your mind, what are the leading causes of homelessness among veterans?
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A: There is not just one leading cause of homelessness among the veteran population. There are multiple factors including but not limited to mental health issues such as depression, PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), and substance addiction, limited or poor social support, limited income, and a lack of affordable housing. Additionally, some veterans may not be aware of all the benefits and services they may be eligible to receive.
Q: The VA has added programs for homeless vets. What can you tell us about those programs and how many area vets are engaged in them?
A: VA Black Hills Health Care System has increased and improved our services within the homeless program. Over the past two years, we have increased our Housing and Urban Development – Veteran Affairs Supported Housing vouchers from 145 to 245 to include 20 vouchers in the Black Hills area, 20 Tribal vouchers on the Pine Ridge, Rosebud, and Standing Rock reservations, and 20 Rural vouchers in the Nebraska Panhandle. We have expanded our employment partnerships by adding a Homeless Veteran Community Employment coordinator and five licensed social workers to provide housing assistance, mental health services, and intensive case management to our homeless program team.
Q: Anything you’d care to add on this topic?
A: Although there has been a 23 percent increase in homeless veterans in South Dakota, it should be noted that of the 130 identified veterans statewide, Pennington County has 53 homeless veterans and Sioux Falls has 32 veterans. This indicates that 45 homeless veterans are in the rural areas of South Dakota compared to 30 veterans in 2016. This increase of veterans identified in our rural areas may in fact be a positive result of our intensive outreach efforts to identify and reach homeless veterans.