The number of homeless veterans in the Ozarks has flattened to what officials call “functional zero” — meaning those needing services can generally find them within Greene, Christian and Webster counties. 

That’s according to a recent board meeting of the Ozarks Alliance to End Homelessness, where advocates and service providers heard the good news. Reaching “functional zero” is a goal for all communities set by the Obama Administration back in 2010.

“This is a big deal,” Adam Bodendieck, director of homeless services for Community Partnership of the Ozarks, said in a later interview. “Anytime we can get to a point with any of our populations where we feel like we’ve made notable progress, it’s a good thing.”

“Functional zero” does not mean there are absolutely no homeless veterans out there, or that veterans will not continue to become homeless in the future, Bodendieck cautioned. 

“This is the point when a local homeless services system is able to prevent and quickly respond to homelessness,” Bodendieck said. 

The Veterans Administration defines “functional zero” as a well-coordinated and efficient community system that assures homelessness is rare, brief and non-recurring and no veteran is forced to live on the street. This means that every veteran has access to the support they need and want to avoid staying on the street and move quickly to permanent housing.

“I think people hear zero, and it’s real easy to equate that with: There is no one experiencing homelessness in your community,” Bodendieck said. “That’s not the way it works. We don’t live in a world where anything is ever that simple. It just means that there is a system in place that is adequate and able to quickly address any issues.”

Certain criteria must be met to qualify. Dishonorably discharged veterans do not qualify for VA benefits, for example. (Programs like the Supportive Services for Veteran Families can sometimes work with dishonorable discharges, depending on the type of court martial attached.)

And those who only served for a very short time may not be eligible.

It’s also possible that there are homeless veterans who are not interested in services.

Sometimes veterans don’t qualify for services because their income is too high. When that happens, Bodendieck said they look for mainstream resources or case management that can help figure out why the vet is having trouble with housing.

Goal to end veteran homelessness set during Obama era

According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs website, three states and 82 communities have “ended veteran homelessness” within the last decade. 

In 2010, the White House and Veterans Affairs announced the rather ambitious goal of ending veteran homelessness by the end of 2015. Obama’s plan to end veteran homelessness — called “Opening Doors” — was the first-ever federal strategic plan to end veteran homelessness. 

Because of that, a few different programs were created to help at-risk or homeless veterans.

At the federal level, the HUD-Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing (VASH) program combines HUD’s Housing Choice Voucher rental assistance for homeless veterans with case management and clinical services provided by the Department of Veterans Affairs. VA provides these services at VA medical centers, community-based outreach clinics, through VA contractors, or through other VA designated entities.

The Kitchen, Inc., a Springfield-based nonprofit, manages a program called Home At Last. The program is funded by the Supportive Services for Veteran Families (SSVF) grant from the Department of Veterans Affairs. 

Home At Last/SSVF is designed to serve veterans and their families who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless. This program provides rent assistance, utility assistance, household items and case management for veterans who now find themselves needing help.

Home At Last served a total of 332 veteran households between 2020 and 2021. That breaks down to 213 individuals served by the prevention program to keep them from becoming homeless and 325 individuals who were homeless served by the rapid rehousing program.

And while the funding is there to help any homeless veteran or those at risk of becoming homeless, The Kitchen’s Director of Programs & Compliance Theresa Oglesby said finding housing for them remains the biggest challenge.

“Safe and affordable housing in this community is pretty much non-existent right now,” Oglesby said. “On top of that, landlords are really cutting back and looking much closer at background checks than they ever have been because there’s so many more people out there looking for the limited number of available units.”

Oglesby, like Bodendieck, emphasized that reaching “functional zero” doesn’t mean there are no homeless veterans in the tri-county region.

“It just means that we have reached a point as a continuum where we have a wide variety of different services and programs in place,” she said, “so that we can respond more rapidly to homelessness when it occurs or when someone finally reaches out to us.”

Andrew Drescher, The Kitchen’s Veterans Services Coordinator, said Home At Last is currently serving 68 households. The majority of those are currently housed. About 17 are literally homeless, he said, but case managers are actively working with them to find housing. 

Bodendieck said 17 veterans on the list for housing is the fewest he’s ever seen.

Catholic Charities of Southern Missouri operates the SSVF program for 36 of the southernmost counties in Missouri, with the exception of those served by The Kitchen’s Home At Last Program (Greene, Christian and Webster counties). 

Catholic Charities Executive Director Maura Taylor said the counties her organization serves are not anywhere near “functional zero” at this time. In fact, the number of homeless veterans her organization normally serves was about 125 a year. Since the start of COVID-19, Taylor said that number jumped to more than 260 veterans a year. 

Jackie Rehwald

Jackie Rehwald is a reporter at the Springfield Daily Citizen. She covers housing, homelessness, domestic violence and early childhood, among other public affairs issues. Her office line is 417-837-3659. More by Jackie Rehwald