Source: PD&R Edge Home
The growing number of female veterans throughout the United States has created a new set of challenges for organizations that serve veterans and the homeless. Pennsylvania, which has the nation’s eighth-largest population of female veterans, is seeing increased rates of homelessness among female veterans, many of whom are single mothers. In the Pittsburgh area, the Veterans Leadership Program of Western Pennsylvania (VLP), an organization that helps veterans transition to civilian life, and ACTION Housing, a local affordable housing developer and property manager, formed Project Journey, a program that provides female veterans and their families with temporary housing and support services to help them build stable lives and careers.
Housing First for Female Veterans
Project Journey got its start in February 2013, after four families headed by veterans came to VLP within a week seeking housing and support. The usual assistance offered in Allegheny County — emergency shelters for families and funds for hotel stays — was not available for these families to find permanent shelter. Recognizing that it needed to adjust its services for female veterans and their families, VLP launched Project Journey with its long-time ally, ACTION Housing. The program houses female veterans and their families for 30 to 60 days as they prepare to find permanent housing. Some extenuating circumstances require longer stays in temporary housing; women with children, for example, may stay an additional month to locate permanent housing with an adequate number of bedrooms.
The Millvale building opened in spring 2014 with two apartments for female veterans and their families in the Project Journey program. The six Project Journey units are located in safe neighborhoods with good school districts and access to public transit, shopping, and other amenities. The units are secure, clean, and fully furnished, and program staff offer the veterans a potted orchid and a stocked refrigerator upon their arrival to show support and help build trust. ACTION Housing owns and manages the Project Journey apartments, except for two privately owned units located near the VLP main office that are rented to Project Journey.
By partnering with local housing providers such as ACTION Housing, VLP can focus on its specialty: providing veterans with support services. The program’s social services staff has assisted 225 veterans in the first year. Each client entering the program meets with VLP’s Women Veterans Coordinator to develop a plan to overcome issues such as health problems, a blemished credit history, or a criminal record. If needed, the veterans’ children are referred to support services. After these primary needs are tended to, the coordinator works with clients with longer-term issues such as employment and education opportunities. When necessary, VLP continues to assist clients after they have left temporary housing. According to Michele Margittai, VLP’s director of development and community relations, “Our goal is to help them find a home and then connect them to employment so they can keep that home.”
The program uses various funding sources to help the veterans obtain housing, find employment, and access social services to address any issues that would jeopardize their ability to remain housed. The United Way of Allegheny County’s United for Women campaign provided the initial funding for social service staff and rent for two apartments. Other funding sources include Allegheny County for rental assistance, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs for support service needs, and the U.S. Department of Labor and the Newman’s Own Foundation for assisting the veterans with job searching and preparedness.
In Millvale, a borough of 3,739 residents adjacent to Pittsburgh, the owner of an office building donated his property to ACTION Housing to use as a shelter. When it opened in April 2014, the property became the third building and third and fourth apartment units owned by ACTION Housing for the Project Journey program.
Each unit in the Millvale building has a fully equipped kitchen. The first-floor unit is 900 square feet with one bedroom and one bathroom and is fully accessible, including wheelchair elevator access into the unit from the parking lot behind the building. A 1,500-square-foot, 2-bedroom unit occupies the second and third floors. The cost to rehabilitate the Millvale building was $230,000. The R.K. Mellon Foundation provided a $100,000 grant through the Allegheny County Department of Human Services, and private financing completed the funding package.
Next Steps for Project Journey
Project Journey, which housed 30 clients in its apartments in the program’s first year, is increasing its capacity to help female veterans and their families in Allegheny County. According to Margittai, “The United Way has funded us for a second year, allowing for additional units.” Project Journey has also built a strong network of volunteers who ensure that the units have the necessary supplies and are ready for new clients. Recognizing that male veterans with children face the same issues as female veterans with children, VLP has also received funding from the Duquesne Light Company to initiate a supportive housing program for those families; VLP is currently working with ACTION Housing to identify suitable units in the Pittsburgh area.