Five years ago, then Secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs, Eric Shinseki, set a rather lofty goal --- to eliminate homelessness among veterans by the end of 2015.
“If we don’t put a very ambitious target on the table so that all of us can go to work on it, we won’t get anywhere near close to eliminating homelessness amongst veterans,” Shinseki said in a YouTube video released in May 2010.
Tampa’s Athena House was founded specifically to help homeless women veterans.
The restored, two-story brick home sits on a busy Ybor City street. The building is nearly a century old and was once home to WWI and WWII veterans, according to Athena program case manager, Morgan McKeown.
Now, the Athena House is home for up to 16 homeless women veterans at a time.
As case manager, McKeown connects the veterans with needed services from counseling programs to bus passes so they can travel to the nearest food pantry. She said each female veteran comes in with different needs.
“Actually, it’s sort of a mantra among the clients: the only thing we have in common is that we’re all veterans,” McKeown said. “I love it when they say that because it is usually some resolution to some silly argument.”
There are only three criteria for admittance into Athena program: you have to be a veteran, a woman and homeless.
There used to be a waiting list to get in. But in early December, there were only 10 residents.
The homeless women veterans can stay as long as 24 months as they work to reclaim their lives, going to counseling, substance abuse programs, college and getting a job. Once they have an income, the women pay some rent and are required to save money for their future housing.
Sara Romeo is the executive director of Crossroads, the social service agency that oversees the Athena House, which opened six years ago.
“You know when I started this program, I identified data that showed 300 homeless female veterans just in Hillsborough County,” Romeo said. She estimates they’ve assisted between 600 and 700 women veterans since 2009.
“In fact, we have people who have called us from throughout the country because this is a unique program,” Romeo said. “There aren’t a lot of programs focused just on the female veteran."
In addition to supporting programs that focused on women veterans like the Athena House, the VA also changed how it served homeless veterans.
Romeo said the VA used to require the women veterans to complete a substance abuse program before they could live at Athena House. However, she said there was a dramatic shift when the VA established its 5-year goal to eliminate veteran homelessness.
“It’s like we don’t care what kind of drugs you’re using, what kind of situation you have, we’re going to get you into housing first because we have to protect you,” Romeo said “We have to get you into a safe environment so you can even think about where you’re going next.”
That policy helped Navy veteran and Athena House resident Junia Williams, 43, who celebrated her first year of sobriety on Dec. 8, 2015.
“When I left the Navy, I didn’t realize how dependent I was on that structure,” Williams said. “I had never learned how to develop that for myself. So it’s been a long chaotic journey.”
That chaotic journey ended in the Manatee County drug court last year. But since then, Williams has been on a new path, completing a drug treatment program, getting counseling and staying at Athena House for the last five months. She plans to return to college for a bachelor’s degree. Her goal is to learn art restoration.
“Right now, I’m at the beginning. So it’s just one day at a time, small baby steps and the rest of the year will follow through,” Williams said.
At the beginning of December, the Hillsborough County homeless veterans count was 123, according to Romeo. She said the county is on track to eliminate veteran homelessness by the end of the year. That means any veteran who wants housing will get it within two weeks.
“We need to be able to sustain what we put in place if we truly want to end not only veteran homelessness but homelessness in total,” Romeo said. “Some communities have already ended. The entire state of Virginia has announced ‘functional zero’ and I’m really happy for them. But I have to tell you, I think the state of Virginia started with about 500 homeless veterans. We started with 35,000 (in Florida).”
She said starting on Jan. 1, 2016, the Athena House and other homeless veterans programs will shift their emphasis to preventing homelessness.