Wednesday, November 20, 2013

‘Families and friends’ good for social support, not housing advice

By Pam Bailey, communications writer for NeighborWorks America

It’s been five years since the full force of the Great Recession hit the United States, with a combination of risky mortgages and declining housing prices forcing approximately 4.6 million families into foreclosure. While more than 13 million households are still underwater, saddled with homes worth less than their mortgage loans, the crisis is losing steam. Foreclosures fell 3 percent in 2012, according to RealtyTrac, and this year is looking even better. In October, foreclosure filings were 28 percent lower than the same month in 2012.

Still, many families are still struggling, and making smart choices will continue to be critical for both the next wave of new house buyers and existing owners working to hold on to their homes. In the aftermath of the crisis, are people now equipped with the information they need to negotiate the right mortgage, as well as to make other pivotal choices? If not, do they know where to go to get help that can be trusted?

To learn the answers to those and related questions, NeighborWorks America commissioned a nationally representative survey of 1,000 adults, which was conducted by Widmeyer Communications, a Finn Partners company, Sept. 23-26.  Among the many findings: Seventy-five percent of adults describe the the home-buying process as "complicated," and a quarter (24 percent) admitted to not being knowledgeable about the different kinds of mortgages.

So where, then, do they turn for advice when buying a house or avoiding foreclosure – a decision that is usually among the biggest financial choices they will make in their lifetimes? More than any other source, “family and friends” are relied upon most often.

When respondents who said they are considering buying a house were asked where they go to first for advice, more than a third (39 percent) cited family and friends who had already purchased a home. Distant runners-up were the Internet (17 percent) and real estate agents (16 percent). Far behind were housing counselors and (more specifically) non-profit homeownership advisers (3 and 5 percent, respectively).

The patterns for seeking information on foreclosure prevention are similar.  Individuals are most likely to turn to family, friends and co-workers (30 percent), followed by the Internet (27 percent), real estate agents (26 percent) or mortgage lenders (23 percent). Just 17 percent of respondents reported they are “very likely” to consult with a housing counselor. The reliance on friends, family and co-workers is especially seen among adults under 55 (37 percent) – particularly women.

Advantages of nonprofit housing counselors

There is nothing wrong, of course, with calling upon your social network. In fact, much research has documented the importance of family and friends in helping individuals cope with all sorts of stress. However, rarely are they professionals in the field of housing or banking, and even when they have gone through the process of home buying or loan modification themselves, each family’s financial situation is unique, not to mention the fact that rules vary depending on the lender and the timing.

“Having a supportive family is wonderful, and the Internet offers a wealth of information,” says Rose Marie Roberts, an advisor with the NeighborWorks Homeownership Center in Utica, NY. “But I wouldn’t go from there to action.” For example, when trying to prevent foreclosure, she notes, “rules and available programs, plus the related legal aspects, change almost daily. It’s a challenge to stay on top of them. But that’s the job of a housing counselor.” (Roberts talks about foreclosure counseling in a NeighborWorks America video.)

With the Government Accountability Office reporting that complaints about fraudulent “foreclosure rescue” schemes jumped from 9,000 in 2009 to more than 18,000 in 2012, it’s critical to have a professional advocate on your side. (Since 2007, NeighborWorks America has managed, at the request of Congress, the National Foreclosure Mitigation Counseling program. It funds more than 1,700 agencies that have assisted nearly 1.6 million homeowners struggling to stay in their houses – without charging a fee. In fact, one sure sign of a scam is an individual or program that attempts to charge for this service. Yet, the survey found that slightly more than a third – 33 percent – of people think that free help is not as good as counsel that you pay to receive.)

A nonprofit housing counselor can help head off
trouble during the complicated home-buying process.
While realtors and mortgage lenders are essential advisors as well, housing counselors with nonprofit organizations such as those that are supported by NeighborWorks America take a holistic approach to each client’s situation – helping them evaluate far more than how much a particular house is worth, which mortgage they can afford or whether they are eligible for re-financing.

“For example, some of the residents in our community are attracted to the less-expensive homes one county over,” recounts Letty Plasencia, a counselor with NeighborWorks Orange County (CA). “But you have to look at more than the sales price. How much time and money will it take to commute to your job, for instance?”

There is hard data showing that pre-purchase counseling by a trained counselor works. A study conducted of 75,000 loans originated between October 2007 and September 2009 showed that clients receiving pre-purchase counseling and education from NeighborWorks organizations were one-third less likely to fall behind on their payments during  the two years after receiving their mortgage.

It’s not surprising that most people don’t think first of turning to a nonprofit housing counselor. Most local organizations do not have the budget for extensive public education. (One of the most successful national campaigns was the “Nothing is worse than doing nothing” campaign launched by NeighborWorks America and the Ad Council, centered on a series of public service announcements for broadcast. Another is the Loan Modification Scam Alert website and hotline.) Instead, local organizations typically rely on referrals and word-of-mouth. The good news is that clients do spread the word to friends and family. And many states and organizations, such as unions, have institutionalized referrals to housing counselors for residents or employees who find themselves underwater.

“In New York, lenders are required to notify homeowners in trouble,” says Roberts. “The problem is that they often don’t trust the lender by that point, or they assume they are a lost cause and no one can help them. I’d say 75 percent of the time, we get these individuals late in the game, from a lawyer or Supreme Court judge who handles settlements.”

The challenge for housing organizations is to build and better leverage relationships with a diverse array of other community stakeholders, such as schools and health clinics, to spread the word about their services to people before they need it. (And of course, expanded demand would require increased staff.) It is clear, counselors agree, that the best time to see a housing adviser is early on, prior to any critical decision-making.

Kevin Washington, a counselor with Neighborhood Housing Services of New York City (NHS-NYC) who specializes in foreclosure intervention, gives this example: “By the time people get to me, they often have gotten advice from a neighbor down the block who has been through foreclosure before, and they end up getting further in trouble. For example, sometimes these clients close all of their accounts down to pay off their debts, but that’s very bad for their credit scores. Plus, you’ll need some money to cover down payment and closing costs (to buy a more affordable house). You don’t need to pay off your debts; you just need to make the required payments. If they get to us too late, and they’ve already made mistakes, they have to wait even longer (to buy) so they can build their assets back up again.”

But perhaps Ruth Pena, another counselor with NHS-NYC, sums up the value of a housing counselor the best: “We create an action plan, and then hold (our clients’) hands through the entire process. Who else will do that?”

Monday, November 18, 2013

Missouri group revitalizes neighborhoods with mixed-income housing and urban orchards

When we hear about declining downtown districts beginning to become trendy again, it’s good news. But there’s usually a downside: As property values shoot up, affordable housing becomes scarce and low-income residents are pushed out.

That’s the challenge faced by Kansas City, MO. And the Westside Housing Organization – a NeighborWorks member celebrating the 40th anniversary of its founding this year – is determined to assure that affordable housing remains central to the downtown community’s identity.

Westside serves a primarily Latino population, a demographic that first began making its way to the city in the 1920s and ‘30s for jobs with the railroad, explains Executive Director Gloria Ortiz Fisher, whose own family emigrated from Mexico. The organization was founded in 1973 to lead residents’ fight against the loss of their homes to two new highways. Although they lost that struggle, Westside (named for the neighborhood on the west side of the city’s downtown district) developed into a strong local advocate for residents, and is today the only community development corporation in Kansas City for which a significant focus is Latinos.

As the railroad declined, so did the town’s economy, with the West Side’s working-class residents finding employment in restaurants, hotels and similar, small, service-based businesses. However, that all changed in 2009 when the Sprint Center – an indoor arena for concerts and other entertainment -- was built downtown, followed by a host of other attractions.

“The West Side is now a desirable place to live again,” says Fisher. “There are new businesses coming in and lots of creative artist types. Our focus is to make sure affordable, multi-family housing remains in the mix.”

Westside is headquartered
in a renovated firehouse,
rehabbed to green
Westside has long been in the business of developing affordable housing to nurture mixed-income neighborhoods. In the 1980s, Westside Housing began acquiring and rehabbing older apartment buildings in the neighborhood, and now has a portfolio of 165 rental units. The organization also facilitated the development of 120 new, affordable houses. Today, it is accelerating that work and hopes to double its rental units to 300. Meanwhile, Westside is eying an old high school, long since closed as young families left the urban core, which it would like to acquire for housing as well as community space. Energy-efficiency is emphasized during construction, both to keep residents’ utility bills low and continue its leadership role. (In December 2012, Westside was recognized as a NeighborWorks America Green Organization.)

“We operate with an average 98 percent occupancy,” says Fisher. “There is always a waiting list.”

Still, it’s a challenge, and many working-class families from the West Side neighborhood are moving to less-expensive homes to the historic northeast district. So, Westside has expanded to serve them, since an older community development corporation in that neighborhood had closed down.

Two residents of the neighborhood water
one of the orchard's trees.
“You can get a house there for $35,000, but there is a lot of crime, and 25 percent of the buildings are abandoned or vacant,” says Fisher. “It’s a good place for fearful immigrants to stay under the radar.”

To help prevent crime through greater community engagement, Westside is recruiting resident leaders to organize clean-ups, advocating for sidewalk construction, starting community gardens and partnering with the police department to implement a program called “Crime Prevention through Environmental Design,” including window repairs and the trimming of shrubs and trees that can hide illicit activity.

One of its more creative projects is an urban orchard designed to accomplish several goals – increase resident engagement (and thus discourage crime), encourage sustainable living and alleviate the “food desert” the area had become. In partnership with SkillsUSA (a nonprofit that trains students in vital job and leadership skills) and TimberlandPro (a footwear manufacturer), and with the help of neighborhood volunteers, Westside Housing planted a 2.5-acre orchard in an empty grass lot behind a community center. Nearly two years later, the orchard is home to more than 200 fruit trees and berry bushes. The trees and shrubbery help improve the poor urban air quality and mitigate storm water runoff, and Westside offers the fruit free for all residents.

“I don’t see broken windows when I walk through a community,” says Fisher. “I see opportunities.”

If you'd like to see for yourself the good work Westside Housing is doing, attend the NeighborWorks Training Institute in Kansas City, MO! At the Dec. 11 symposium, "Real-World Solutions for Community Transformation," one of the "mobile workshops" will be held at its facility.

Written by Pam Bailey, communications writer for NeighborWorks America. 

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Wisconsin group to transform old armory to indoor farm staffed by returning vets

When NeighborWorks Green Bay (WI) bought 815 Chicago St. in 2002, the organization assumed it would rehabilitate the building, like the others it purchased, into multi-unit housing. What wasn’t known at the time, however, was that the building, an old armory that long ago served the needs of local military families, had 14-inch-thick cement slab floors that made the cost of redevelopment prohibitively expensive. So the building sat vacant, waiting for the day when it would be demolished.

Workers clear debris from the old armory.
Today, after the better part of a decade spent in a holding pattern, there is budding hope that the old armory will get its long-deserved rebirth. As part of a partnership between NeighborWorks Green Bay and local green agro-businesses, the old armory is being assessed for its potential as Green Bay’s first indoor farm. The idea sprouted after Noel Halvorsen, executive director of NeighborWorks Green Bay, participated in a local social-innovation leadership program and learned about creative urban farming projects around the country. Shortly thereafter, Halvorsen was contacted by local hydroponics specialists who also saw potential in the armory.

Research now is underway to
determine what crops would
grow best in the "Farmory."
When completed, the “Farmory” – as it has come to be known – will not only supply food locally throughout the year but will also operate as an agricultural learning center with a focus on training returning veterans.

“We think converting the armory back into service as a training center for military folks returning from overseas would be a great life for the building and an asset for the neighborhood,” Halvorsen says.. The project is undergoing rigorous business planning and analysis to test its feasibility and the results to date are promising. NeighborWorks Green Bay hopes in the next few months to have a full business plan and training curriculum in place, with construction well underway in 2014.

It is this kind of creative thinking that characterizes NeighborWorks Green Bay’s success in the northeast region of Wisconsin it serves. The organization, which is celebrating its 20th year as a member of the NeighborWorks network, started out as a small-scale local initiative that offered tool lending, homeownership preservation and small “scrape-and-paint” projects. Over the years, the geography it serves has grown, as has its local partnerships and programming.

For example, another creative local project that NeighborWorks Green Bay is spearheading is a volunteer time bank.  The time bank, led by a team that the organization sent to NeighborWorks America’s Community Leadership Institute two years ago, is an online system for recording and rewarding volunteer exchanges, enabling local “Samaritans” to capitalize on their skills. For example, one person can exchange an hour earned walking a neighbor’s dogs to get his or her home repainted. The plan received initial support from a CLI planning grant and is in a test phase this winter to evaluate the software platform. Next February, NeighborWorks Green Bay plans to launch it publicly in select neighborhoods before hopefully introducing it community-wide in the summer.

By bringing together unique local assets through innovative projects and programs, NeighborWorks Green Bay is building a better community.

Written by Lydia Wileden, program specialist for community stabilization at NeighborWorks America. 

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Forty-five years after founding, Pennsylvania group helps future homebuyers achieve ‘financial freedom’

When visitors walk into the NeighborWorks America offices in DC, one of the first images they see is a floor-to-ceiling painting of Dorothy Mae Richardson, along with the quote, “I believe people get their roots down when they own their own houses….take pride in them. That, in turn, is good for the whole city.”

Dorothy Mae Richardson
These wise words can be generalized to cities everywhere, but in 1968, Richardson – the “founding mother” of NeighborWorks America -- was speaking specifically about Pittsburgh, where she enlisted bankers and government officials to support her block club’s efforts to improve her neighborhood. Together, they persuaded 16 financial institutions and a local foundation to put up the loans needed to create opportunities for affordable homeownership. They named the program Neighborhood Housing Services, and it served as the model for other programs that followed -- today known as NeighborWorks organizations.

Forty-five years later, the NeighborWorks network encompasses more than 240 such organizations, and the group founded by Richardson is still going strong, known as NeighborWorks Western Pennsylvania. The dynamics of the community, however, along with the services needed by residents, have changed – and the organization has adapted along with it.

“More people own their own homes here now, thanks to our efforts,” says Margie Howard, education specialist with NeighborWorks Western Pennsylvania. “But we’ve realized that more than homeownership education and counseling are needed.  Residents also need help keeping their homes in good shape, staying out of foreclosure and managing their budgets to make it all affordable. In particular, we are serving a growing number of low-income, single heads of household. Race isn’t the issue here; economics is.”

While the organization has offered financial education for youth for the past five years, recent support from the Heinz Endowments has made it possible to expand its efforts to include the entire family, combating generational poverty.

 “We saw that parents weren’t teaching their children about money management – mainly because they themselves didn’t learn it,” Howard explains. “You see lots of instances of a mom spending $300 on shoes for her child, yet there’s a shortage of food in the house, or maybe the family is about to be evicted. It’s not just about teaching parents how to budget; it’s about changing attitudes and behavior around money.”

Youth don’t get financial education in the schools either, says Howard. “Schools are test- rather than life-skills-oriented.”

One of the youth financial-education classes
The organization’s youth financial-education program enrolls participants as young as 14 up through age 25, with instruction provided in four, one-hour classes. The program’s practical approach encourages participants to analyze real-life spending choices, such as getting ready for prom.

“The average girl realizes it will cost about $3,000 for a one-day event; for boys, it’s more like $1,000.  Many are okay with these figures when it’s their parents who foot the bill,” explains Howard. “But then they are asked what will happen if their mom has been laid off, or is working a minimum-wage job. How will she afford that while keeping up with the bills? Some of the students find ways to cut back like having a friend style their hair or using a parent’s car instead of renting a fancy one. Others decide to skip the prom altogether. The goal is to teach them to analyze their wants vs.  their needs. We see how their thinking changes when they realize they might have to pay for things themselves.”

The key, says Howard, is to separate spending from emotional triggers, starting with tracking where the money is going with a daily log. Ideally, major spending decisions should be made collectively, by the entire family.  Although teenagers typically prefer to attend workshops with youth from their own age group, family members from different generations are encouraged to come to one of the workshops together. Howard recalls one time when a 10-year-old girl came with her mother to a class because she didn’t want to go to the gym with her brother. After the workshop, the little girl went up to the instructor and proudly reported that she had her own bank account. The teacher asked what the girl would do with the savings, and she replied, “I want to have a princess birthday party.”

“A 10-year-old is breaking the cycle by planning ahead to make sure she has the money she needs to meet her goals,” says Howard. “We’ve created a saver!”

Long-term results from the financial-capability workshops are still being assessed, but the anecdotes are promising. One recent evening, for instance, Howard was approached at a community event by Essence Howze, who completed the organization’s financial-education program five years before, when she was just 16. Always ambitious, Howze first began earning money at age 9, manning a refreshment stand in front of her home. “I would sell iced tea and lemonade to joggers,” she laughs.

Essence Howze
However, self-teaching could get her only so far. When she was in 10th grade, Howze saw a flyer on a bulletin board, promoting NeighborWorks Western Pennsylvania’s youth financial-education program. Howze enrolled, and the practical skills she learned, she says, enabled her to open her own savings account and enter community college, where today she is a sophomore studying business management. Always ambitious, she has supplemented her studies with extracurricular activities such as an internship with The Salvation Army’s Career Development Center, and recently started her own business -- which she calls “Silver Linings,” through which she helps others overcome personal barriers like those she faced during a troubled family life.

“Taking the NeighborWorks financial-education course gave me my financial freedom. It helped me avoid so many mistakes, and now I’m helping others,” Howze says, recalling how she showed her college roommate how to read the “fine print” when a credit card company tried to sign her up. “I refer back to the materials I got in those workshops all the time. It wasn’t just financial management I was empowerment.”

Written by Pam Bailey, communications writer for NeighborWorks America. 

Friday, November 8, 2013

Youth in San Francisco's Chinatown transform historic alleyways

Youth lead a tour through San Francisco's Chinatown
Step off the main roads of San Francisco’s Chinatown neighborhood and you’ll find yourself in a labyrinth of alleyways.  At each turn there is history: opium dens, a barbershop where Frank Sinatra used to get the perfect cut and thousands of other, untold stories from one of America’s oldest ethnic villages.  You’ll also see something you wouldn’t expect: teenagers leading tours with expert proficiency, sharing their story of how they cleaned up these neglected public spaces.

Back in 1991, Norman Fong, executive director of the Chinatown Community Development Center (which is celebrating its fifth year as a NeighborWorks network member), reached out
to local youth and asked them how they could help the community.  Their response was simple: Clean up the local alleyways that had been neglected by both the city and the community.  Chinatown’s historic alleyways are not considered public infrastructure, so the city would not take responsibility for their care; over time, they began to overflow with refuse and waste from the restaurants and businesses that filled the area.  Since traditional open space is limited, these students immediately saw an opportunity to improve the lives of their fellow citizens and went to work.

Students clean the alleyways. (Photo
by James Ng)
Fong’s inaugural group of eight Galloway High School students in the “Adopt-An-Alleyway Youth Empowerment Project”  started by grading the alleyways just as they were in school, with marks of A, B, C, D or F.  They worked to have a local newspaper publish the grades, alerting the public to the dire state of their own space.   Then they got to work: washing walls and roads and sweeping away dirt and debris. Soon the community took notice.  Individuals began walking the alleyways again and local restaurants that had been dumping oil and refuse into the alleys began to take care of their waste properly.

A few years later, Fong set up a meeting at the city’s department of public works bureau of street use and mapping to discuss the alleyways.  Although the city had spent the previous several decades dodging the work of cleaning these alleys, the amazing progress of the students could not be ignored. The city commissioned its own master plan allowing the students an opportunity to expand their work and partner with the local government. Jointly, Chinatown CDC and the student volunteers worked to develop a master plan for the city’s entire network of 41 alleyways, describing the current state and the work needed to make them a place the community could use again.  They went door to door visiting with local businesses and residents to make the case for their plan, and in 1998 the city adopted the guidelines authored by students.

Murals now beautify many of the alleyways.
The students’ master plan went beyond cleaning the alleyways to include initiatives to reduce illegal parking, improve pedestrian safety and access for the disabled, add green features and include more beautification efforts like murals.  Since adoption of the plan, five phases featuring the renovation of 11 alleyways have been completed.  The public space transformed by the work of these youth benefits the community overall, including more commerce for local businesses that rely on the millions of tourists who visit each year.

Beyond their work creating clean and safe public spaces the youths have also started a small business that leads tours of the alleys.

Fong believes that the youth of a community are more than the future, but also very much the present. “The youth know what needs to be done like everyone else, but they took on the responsibility to do it and the results speak for themselves,” he says.

Written by Jason Powers, national public affairs and communications adviser for NeighborWorks America.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Atlanta group helps homebuyers save ‘green’ with green housing

Whether housing is affordable is determined by so much more than its purchase price or monthly rent. High energy costs also can be a heavy financial burden on families whose incomes already are stretched. According to the national Green & Healthy Homes Initiative, low-income households typically spend 14 percent of their total income on energy costs, compared with 3.5 percent for other households.

Resources for Residents and Communities (RRC) in Atlanta, which is celebrating its 10th anniversary as a NeighborWorks network member this year, hopes to help homeowners reduce their costs by incorporating an array of green features in its new single-family development, Legacy Pointe.

Legacy Pointe will be a small subdivision within Atlanta’s Reynoldstown community consisting of eco-friendly, pre-fabricated homes for purchase.

“The uniqueness is the development will be mixed-income,” says Jill Arrington, CEO of RRC. “The [homes] that will be affordable will be held in a community land trust to keep them perpetually affordable.”

To earn its “eco-friendly” label, Legacy Pointe will feature energy-efficient LED lighting in the common areas, pervious concrete (highly porous material that allows precipitation to pass through and re-charge ground water levels) in the parking  lot and landscaping that requires very little watering.  Each home also will include separate lines for hot and cold water (thus reducing waste) and temperature controls that reduce reliance on the heating, ventilation and air-conditioning (HVAC) system.

“We didn’t have to turn on the HVAC unit in our model home at all this summer,” Arrington says. “Even last winter, we never had to turn on the heat.”

The first model home in Legacy Pointe was assembled so
quickly it was like "magic."
With such features, it’s no wonder the Reynoldstown community is already abuzz about the new development.  Arrington recounts the day in 2010 that New World Home, a national green home builder and RRC’s partner in this effort, built the first house that inspired the idea of Legacy Pointe.

“They rolled everything in at 7 that morning, [put] the structure in place, and by 5 p.m. that day they locked it with a key,” recalls Arrington with a laugh. Reynoldstown residents were slightly surprised by a house that seemingly appeared out of nowhere.  “If you left early that morning, you saw a vacant lot.  So when you got home later that night and saw a house sitting there, it would have freaked you out.”

Reynoldstown, which sits less than 10 minutes east of downtown Atlanta, began experiencing growth in its housing market after RRC redeveloped the community in the late 1990s.  Mitchell Brown, RRC’s COO, notes that homes in the community are in high demand.

 “Reynoldstown is now one of the hottest neighborhoods in Atlanta. The average house is priced at $225,000 to $250,000, but they’re selling for around $300, 000,” he says.  “RRC has helped turn the neighborhood around to be a place where people want to live.”

Zach and Anastasia (shown with their daughter, Penelope)
purchased the first model home in Legacy Pointe.
This probably explains why the first model home for Legacy Pointe sold before the actual development is even complete.  The lucky homebuyer?  A client in RRC’s homebuyer education class.

 “The fact that we can provide a quality home for a relatively affordable price to clients in our homebuyer education classes is a win-win,” says Arrington.

As Reynoldstown continues to grow, RRC remains committed to ensuring its residents can stay in the community, in homes that are affordable.

“One of the goals of our founding CEO, Young Hughley Jr., was to provide units of permanent affordability,” explains Arrington. “Legacy Pointe is just one of the projects we have in the works to do this.”

Written by Constance Troutman, public relations specialist for NeighborWorks America. 

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Veterans in trouble need more than ceremonies and discounts

My father and mother at my daughter's
wedding -- his last public event before
he died.
When my father died in August, the funeral home director suggested to my mother that a military honor guard attend his memorial service, in recognition of his deployment with the Army in World War II. The two young men did not treat the assignment as routine or strange, as I would imagine it would be, to “intrude” on such a private event for someone you never knew. After the trumpet was sounded and the flag folded, one of them knelt in front of my frail, aging mother, looked her directly in the eye, and in a soft voice, thanked her – and my father – for his service. It was beautiful, and touching, and I was thankful for the recognition of a life well-lived.

Veterans and soldiers still in active duty are frequently honored in ceremonies such as this, and with special discounts at restaurants and theaters. But those small, albeit appreciated, gestures don’t quite seem to synch with the statistics I come across in my position at NeighborWorks America. Consider:

An estimated 13-17 percent of homeless individuals are veterans (a statistic hard to come by, since they are difficult to find, and thus count). No matter what number you choose, it’s far more than their 7-9.5 percent share of the overall adult population. When the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) conducted its last “point-in-time” survey (one night in January, repeated ever year, in more than 3,000 cities and counties), it found 62,619 homeless veterans.

Many veterans who are not homeless are nonetheless “precarious.” Among the estimated 21.8 million veterans in this country, more than 1.5 million spend over half of their income on housing – well above the recommended maximum threshold of 30 percent. A similar number live in poverty.

Among the most recent veterans – 18-24-year-olds returning from Iraq or Afghanistan – unemployment was 30.2 percent in 2011 (compared to 16.1 percent for non-veterans the same age).

According to a recent survey conducted by NeighborWorks America of 1,000 adults, veterans are like the rest of us; 92 percent regard homeownership to be an integral part of what the “American dream” means to them.  To help them (and others) achieve that goal, many members of our network -- as well as the 3,000+ organizations that turn to us for training -- are staffed with counselors that offer coaching on financial management, navigating the home buying process and – for those who find themselves in trouble – mitigating foreclosure. For those 2 million-plus veterans who are struggling to merely survive, however, more focused, “aggressive” assistance is needed.

First challenge: tracking them down

“We spend a lot of time just trying to find these individuals,” explains Jamie Ebaugh, a social worker and director of supportive housing for NeighborWorks member Southwest Solutions in Detroit. “In the military culture, asking for help is often perceived as weakness. In addition, the traditional VA way of operating is for veterans to come to them. And then, in some cases – such as women who have been sexually assaulted during their service [estimated at one in three] – there is a lack of trust.”

Ronnie, who served in the Army for eight
 years and found help adjustingto life at
home again, from Primavera Foundation.
He remains at home with hiswife Denise.
Paul Andrew, director of the Project Action for Vets at Tucson’s Primavera Foundation, another NeighborWorks member, describes similar challenges. To find these often “invisible” individuals, his organization posts ads in bus stops, liquor stores, laundromats and public parks, and deploys outreach workers to look under bridges and comb the “washes” (dry river beds).

Women (about 10 percent of veterans) are a different story, however. “We don’t find them in the washes,” explains Andrew, who was raised by an uncle in the military and whose son was posted to Iraq while in the National Guard. “Women are more likely to live in cars (often with their children) or ‘garage hop,’ sheltering with friends until their welcome is worn out. They are harder to find.”

The root causes of increased homelessness among veterans are complicated as well. Some enter the military from troubled or rootless backgrounds, turning to the service to escape dysfunctional families, find a “direction in life” or as a last resort to finance school or job training. They may not have experience in living and managing their affairs on their own. As reported by Stars and Stripes last month, a new report in the American Journal of Public Health concluded that members of the military are more likely to be targets for predatory lenders as a result.

“Many of them, when they first come out of the service, aren’t good at managing a checkbook, paying bills, negotiating with a landlord…they’ve never had to do that. They enlisted right out of high school,” explains Ebaugh, whose organization – like many other NeighborWorks members – provides coaching in financial management among its services.

Others become physically or mentally disabled during their service, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and substance abuse.

Ebaugh’s own niece is a case in point. “She served in Iraq for four years,” he says. “She came back, got her own place to live in and started a dog-training business. But then the Fourth of July came, with all of the fireworks. The noise triggered her PTSD and she ‘crashed.’ She lost her house. I asked her, ‘why didn’t you call somebody?’ She said she thought she could handle it. I got her into professional help, and now she is doing better. She is seeing a therapist and living out of her business.”

For many veterans, their problems are exacerbated by weak social-support networks, broken down during extended periods of duty, and the fact that military training is not always perceived as transferable to the civilian workforce.

Second challenge: bridging to stability

Among the programs offered by Southwest Solutions is Piquette Square, an apartment project with 150
Joe Roth, a formerly homeless vet now
living and volunteering at Piquette Square.
affordable units where formerly homeless veterans can live as long as they want, as well as receive mental-health counseling, treatment for substance abuse, job training and other support services.

“The need is huge,” says Ebaugh. “Piquette Square was filled the day it opened (in 2010), and if we opened up another one we could fill it again. We estimate there are probably at least 3,000 homeless vets just in the Detroit area.”

Most of the vets Ebaugh and his team serve are from the Vietnam era, in part because there often is a “lag” before serious problems develop.  “At first, returning soldiers turn to family members,” he explains. “It can take a while before PTSD begins to manifest itself, as well as for the vets to exhaust their known resources – including the goodwill of their family and friends. A place like Piquette improves family dynamics significantly, by taking the pressure off. Once they have a home of their own, their families are more willing to re-engage.”

Over the next few years, Ebaugh anticipates seeing more vets from the more recent wars, as those conflicts wind down and more and more of those soldiers try to integrate back in. “We expect to 10,000 returning vets in Michigan alone during the next year,” he says. “The key will be to provide them with supportive services right away, along with the tools they need to find jobs. Employment is the key to preventing homelessness.”

Both Southwest Solutions and Primavera are able to do their work thanks to an escalating commitment by the VA to ending homelessness among veterans, including partnerships with nonprofits at the grassroots level. Three years ago, it launched the Supportive Services for Veteran Families (SSVF) program, in which grants are awarded to private cooperatives and nonprofits such as Primavera and Southwest Solutions to seek out very-low-income veterans to help them and their families transition to permanent housing.

“There are a lot of services available to veterans,” says Andrew. “They just have trouble connecting with them. Navigation can be a nightmare.”

The challenges are daunting, and although Andrew estimates about 15 percent of veterans in the Primavera “system” drop out for reasons that are not always known, dramatic successes are possible. He tells the story of one female veteran who came to Primavera while living with her three children in her car, after seeing one of the organization’s bus stop ads. She had recently lost both her job and home, and was in “deep crisis mode. When you’re in crisis, your ability to plan is nil to none. You have to approach your situation in little pieces, one step at a time.” After a thorough screening, Primavera matched her to stable housing and placed her in a job with a large call center in Tucson. The children were back in school within three months.

Ebaugh agrees, and adds his own keys to successfully helping veterans in perpetual crisis:

  • Remember that they won’t usually come to you. You have to develop a plan to find and engage them. It’s particularly effective to involve the veterans themselves:  “One vet can take you to 10 other vets.”
  • Treat them with dignity. Veterans are very proud. Play to that, rather than making them feel belittled. Seeking help is not a weakness; it’s merely getting the “leg up” you need.
  • Allow vets to teach you too. When they feel comfortable enough with you, they will open up to you with stories that may be heartbreaking, but often very inspiring. 

“Families who know someone who served in the military ‘get it.’ But many others don’t realize how life-changing the experience is. War, and serving in the military itself, changes people in really deep ways, both good and bad.”

Ebaugh is right. I am very fortunate that two years before my father died, I took the time to record an interview with him (using a “home kit” from StoryCorps), in which I asked my dad at length about his stint overseas during the war – why he enlisted, how it changed him, whether he would encourage young people today to join the military. I had never really taken the time before to listen to tales that seemed, as a child, to be “ancient stories that didn’t relate to me.” But once I asked, and listened, I was amazed at his resilience, his insight into the dynamics shaping the world today, and the person who was also my father.

Veterans in trouble deserve more than a day in their honor, or a discount at the movie theater. They need our focused attention and commitment, every day of the year.

Written by Pam Bailey, communications writer for NeighborWorks America. She would love for you to post your own stories and comments!