In last week’s “state of the city” address, Little Rock Mayor Mark Stodola made a startling claim: The city has essentially eliminated homelessness among veterans. “We will soon be submitting paperwork certifying that we have met the federal benchmark for functionally ending veterans homelessness in Little Rock. Veterans deserve no less than our very best,” the mayor said.

THV 11 followed up on Stodola’s remarks with a report that raised more questions than it answered. The city “has nearly ended veteran homelessness in the area” the local station said, but later added that the work of the Mayor’s Task Force on Ending Veteran Homelessness” has cut the homeless veteran population in half — down to 35 — which is the federal standard for having ended veteran homelessness.”

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“The City will apply for certification this month declaring they’ve officially ended veteran homelessness in Little Rock,” the report concluded.

As careful readers will note, 35 isn’t zero. I checked in with the mayor’s office, the VA and local advocate Aaron Reddin of The Van and The One to ask what’s behind the city’s claim about homeless vets.

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“Functional zero,” it turns out, is a federal standard set by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, but it’s much more complicated than simply cutting the population in half.

Dr. Estella Morris, the director of the Veteran Administration’s Day Treatment Center on  Main Street in Little Rock, explained that a city must meet four benchmarks to meet the standard. First, according to HUD, the average number of homeless vets in a given month must be less than the number being connected with permanent housing. That essentially means the number of vets entering homelessness is less than the number exiting, Morris explained.

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The city must also show that veterans have quick access to permanent housing, that sufficient housing capacity exists and that it’s committed to a “housing first” policy that doesn’t force all vets to enter a residential treatment program before receiving housing assistance.

Bottom line: There are still homeless veterans in Little Rock, though chronic, sustained homelessness among vets has been mostly eliminated.

“Because of the years of outreach we have engaged in … a lot of the individuals we are seeing are those who are newly homeless, not those who have been homeless for many years,” Morris said. Homelessness among veterans today is more typically the “result of situational crises, or those coming out of prisons or jails, or those who are newly divorced … not those who have been on the street for long periods of time.”

Chris Durney, a spokesperson for the Central Arkansas Veterans Healthcare System, said the “functional zero” standard is “a very good milestone … but we have a long way to go in our fight to get homeless veterans sheltered.”

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“Actual zero would be all veterans having a place to go at night, and that’s our goal,” he said.

Brian Griffin, an assistant to Mayor Stodola, said the standard means “you have a system in place that, no matter where in the community a veteran shows up, that veteran has access to immediate housing … The concept is that the moment he or she reaches someone in the continuum of care, a plan is then set in place to get him or her into permanent housing.”

Griffin confirmed that Little Rock will soon apply to the federal authorities for confirmation that it’s officially met the “functional zero” standard. He also acknowledged there are still homeless vets in the city. In a given month, he said, “14 folks enter permanent housing and we add 12 more people to the list … so the number is always going to turn over.”

Reddin, the founder of local outreach organization The Van, is perhaps the city’s most vocal advocate for the homeless. (Reddin is also a veteran.) The “functional zero” concept is “misleading to the average citizen,” he said.

“I think it’s all kind of silly, myself. … It’s political speak for, ‘We’ve put a big dent in it.’ ” And yet, Reddin added, “they absolutely have. Props to the VA. They do a great, great job. … Every time we find an unsheltered veteran … [and] connect them with the VA drop-in center, we get great results.”

The Van sends mobile teams out across the greater Little Rock area six nights a week, he said, and “we do not see a tremendous amount of veterans at all.” He attributed that to the VA’s efforts. Still, some people fall through the cracks, he said: People with multiple pets (a no-go for most shelters), people unwilling or unable to stop self-medicating with drugs or alcohol, and others.

“Maybe they don’t trust the VA; maybe they’ve been burned. Maybe they function on a level of independence where they don’t want that help … . Or a lot of times PTSD is not compatible with a shelter setting. They’re dealing with a lot inside their head and they don’t want to be crammed inside a room with 20 to 70 other people,” he said.

Reddin takes issue not with the VA’s efforts but with the “functional zero” term. “I don’t think you need to be claiming you’re ending it until you’ve ended it for every veteran, including folks with these weird caveats,” he said. “But for the folks who do align with all the criteria … it does a remarkable job.”

Morris said the city the Mayor’s Task Force on Ending Veteran Homelessness has been an instrumental part of the VA’s successful efforts. Stodola has helped the VA work with Little Rock’s housing authority to expedite apartment inspections — a prerequisite to obtaining a HUD voucher — and maintain a database of landlords. The housing authorities for North Little Rock and Pulaski County have participated in the task force as well. Stodola sent letters to the Little Rock Landlord Association asking them to work with the VA, Morris said.

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Then there’s the “housing first” initiative, which is a departure from the VA’s previous policy of requiring veterans to enter residential treatment before getting a housing voucher. The idea behind that policy was to “establish that they were stable in terms of mental health as well as their substance use,” Morris said. But the blanket waiting period requirement sometimes provided to be an impediment to getting veterans housed.

“Now we have social workers and nurses do clinical assessments … to determine whether this individual is capable of functioning independently in the community.” Some vets still go through rehab, she said. But, “if the vet is willing to commit to engaging to case management, then they don’t necessarily have to go through a residential treatment program to gain access to housing.”

All that has helped the VA ensure it can quickly find a solution for vets in need of quick assistance. “We are at 93, 94 percent here in Little Rock when it comes to ‘rapid rehousing,’ ” Morris said. Rapid rehousing means that an individual or family that has lost housing regains it within a 90 day period, she explained.

The city and the VA also maintain a name-by-name list of veterans who come to the day center in need of help.

Ever week we make calls to those individuals to ask them if they are interested in going into housing,” she said.