VOA: Homeless shelter closing, community solutions needed

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SHERIDAN — The Sheridan Community Homeless Shelter will close its doors permanently Sept. 18 after federal dollars that contributed two-thirds of the shelter’s annual budget were eliminated.

Volunteers of America Northern Rockies will continue services through a homeless outreach program, and the nonprofit’s leadership has asked for community help in finding solutions for rapidly rehousing Sheridan’s homeless population.

“We see that this may seem as a burden in the beginning, but I hope it opens up a capacity for all service providers to be able to be in the game and come to the table with thoughts and ideas,” VOANR’s chief operating officer Heath Steel told The Sheridan Press. “We’re going to be looking for community-based solutions.”


National loss

The national funding from the Homeless Provider Grant and Per Diem Program will expire on Sept. 30 after serving more than 25,000 homeless veterans, with more than 16,500 exiting the program with permanent housing. 

The grant program’s funding had been replenished each year up to a level authorized and appropriated by Congress. The grants coming out of that funding are dated and do not align with the current homeless veteran experience provided by the Department of Veterans Affairs. A federal register produced by the VA said the VA now has at its disposal additional homeless programs that were not in existence previously and is working in conjunction with other federal agencies to address homelessness among veterans. 

The Department of Veterans Affairs adopted bridge-housing models, which focus on short lengths of stay and rapid connections to permanent housing.


VA-driven shelter

A local church started Sheridan County’s homeless shelter as an overnight crisis shelter before the VA took over services alongside the VOA in 1989. Through the Homeless Provider Grant and Per Diem Program, the VA provided two-thirds of the overall budget for the shelter to cater specifically to serving homeless veterans. City and county governments provided 14 percent of the operating budget and private donors also helped to provide services to homeless civilians as well as the veteran population in Sheridan.

“We were notified in December that the VA would be putting out a request for proposals for bridge housing and they were moving away from per diem,” Steel said. “(The VOA was) given two options at the time we were notified. One was to do nothing and close out per diem by Sept. 30, 2017. The other was to apply for bridge housing and come along with the new model to look at how veterans were served.”

Steel said the VA transitioned homeless veteran services into a case management model — Supportive Services for Homeless Veterans, which Volunteers of America has operated both in Wyoming and Montana for the last three years statewide.

“That program is about rapid rehousing — quickly getting in there, identifying the needs of getting the individual rehoused and then stabilizing them,” Steel said.

The VOA plans to utilize that model in its homeless outreach program.


Homeless outreach

Steel said the VOA’s overall mission is to provide a hand up, not a hand out by meeting those in need and stabilizing them with the help of community partners. The VA will continue working with the VOA to provide services for Sheridan’s homeless veteran population.

“The VA is committed to working with the VOA through assistance of veterans and their families,” said Sheridan VA public affairs officer Scott Reichert. “We’ve had a great relationship in the past and we look forward to continuing to work with them.”

Homeless veterans currently benefitting from the Homeless Provider Grant and Per Diem Program will transition into the VOA’s transitional living home, Freedom Hall. The hall has the capacity to house 10 men. The community homeless shelter served 112 veterans in fiscal year 2016, decreasing from 129 in FY15 and 138 in FY14. Steel said Freedom Hall will accommodate all veteran men eligible for housing for up to 90 days. There is currently no overflow and no waiting list for housing at the hall.

“We’re actively looking at how to deal with the closure,” Reichert said. “We want to reiterate that anyone that’s enrolled in a grant per diem program that we’re going to continue working out a plan of care through the program. We’re not tossing anyone out.”

As for the homeless civilian population, VOA staff will continue meeting the needs as best they can.

“The downside to not having the building is the obvious one in that there won’t be a homeless shelter in Sheridan,” Steel said. “The positive side to it is the best practices that we have put in place as an organization are to meet people where they are and give them a hand up. That’s what we’re doing. We’re following our mission. This will be bigger and broader than just housing.”

The VOA reached out to the other stakeholders in an effort to obtain more funding and keep the shelter open and operating, but that effort did not result in additional funding.


Seeing the need

Without a physical building to house the homeless population in Sheridan, those without access to housing may become more visible in the community. 

In the past three fiscal years, the community homeless shelter had an average of 22 people per night stay under its roof. Users of the shelter may use the facility for 48 hours. After that, residents must start case management with VOA coordinators at the shelter and typically stay from 30 to 60 days. The shelter saw a 61 percent success rate in fiscal years 2016 and 2014 and a 58 percent success rate in 2015.

“Do I think that the possibility exists that there could be more homeless present here in Sheridan than it is now? I do,” Steel said.

Law enforcement officers foresee only a slight increase in visibility of homelessness in the community.

“I don’t think that we have a lot of residential or homelessness from our own citizens,” Sheridan Police Lt. Travis Koltiska said. “A lot of it is a transient population or like I said someone who comes here for some service that’s provided in Sheridan and ends up staying.”

Koltiska said Sheridan doesn’t see the stereotypical homeless population on the streets, but rather sees people traveling through become stranded for one reason or another.

“I think that there could be a little more visibility in the homelessness issue in Sheridan,” Koltiska said. “It’s a hard one to predict.”

Even though the impact of the homeless shelter’s closure remains hard to predict, Koltiska said law enforcement will provide individuals with every resource and response possible.


Community charge

Steel reiterated the need for community contributions as the homeless shelter closes. Community Connections, a Sheridan resource launching in September, will provide a list of services for the VOA to help connect homeless civilians with the resources they need to get back on their feet. Community Connections, led by Sheridan County Public Health in its pilot year, will collaborate with local resources to provide necessary services — whether medical, social or economic — to ensure success of its clients.

Cody Haar, associate pastor at Cornerstone Church, said he had not heard of direction given by the VOA to the local church community in regards to helping with homeless shelter transitioning, but will be waiting in the wings to help as he can.

“I think we’re very blessed here in Sheridan to have a community that is open to wrapping themselves around challenges and bringing solutions forward. I believe that this is going to require a community response,” Steel said. “It’s my hope that the community will come along beside us and realize that this is a community challenge.”

By |August 11th, 2017|

About the Author:

Ashleigh Fox joined The Sheridan Press in October 2016 as the government, cops and courts reporter. She is a native of Colorado and graduated from Biola University in Los Angeles, CA. Before working in Sheridan, she worked as a sports editor for the Sidney Herald in Sidney, MT. Email Ashleigh at: ashleigh.fox@thesheridanpress.com