VA and Lexington housing authority team up to expand housing for homeless veterans

Ronnie Warner, a former homeless veteran, stood near MLK Blvd. and Main St.Lexington, Ky. on Friday July 25, 2014. Warner was helped by the Catholic Action Center and a Veterans Administration program. Photo by Pablo Alcala | Staff
Ronnie Warner, a former homeless veteran, stood near MLK Blvd. and Main St.Lexington, Ky. on Friday July 25, 2014. Warner was helped by the Catholic Action Center and a Veterans Administration program. Photo by Pablo Alcala | Staff Lexington Herald-Leader

Ronnie Warner was on his father's front porch the morning of Sept. 11, 2001. The disturbing image of two planes crashing into New York City's Twin Towers resonated with him, and the assault on American soil served as an impetus to enlist in the Army. But after a decade of service, including three deployments to Iraq, Warner found himself back in Kentucky on the streets, homeless and unemployed.

"I'll never regret joining the military, in that time of my life. It was something I needed," Warner said. "I never dreamed I would be an Army vet with 10 years and four months of service scrounging for everything I could get my hands on. Food, shelter, getting out of the rain, everything."

Warner attended a press conference Friday, where Lexington Mayor Jim Gray announced an expansion of rental income vouchers to help homeless veterans.

The Lexington-Fayette Urban County Housing Authority will receive 51 Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing (VASH) vouchers from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The vouchers will be administered in partnership with the Lexington Veterans Affairs Medical Center, providing rental assistance and critical support to help get veterans off the street and into housing.

"Over the past six years the housing authority has used 195 vouchers provided through the HUD-VASH program to help veterans obtain safe housing," said Austin Simms, executive director of the housing authority. "These additional 51 vouchers will further the housing authority's mission of providing safe, affordable housing to families in need."

Simms said the value of the vouchers is yet to be determined.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development estimates there are 58,000 homeless veterans nationwide, and a Lexington survey of the veteran homeless population in January found that 78 veterans were homeless and relying on services of emergency shelters. This number fluctuates on a daily basis.

Early in 2014, Lexington committed $3.5 million to affordable housing and homelessness and created a new office of Homelessness Prevention and Intervention. Part of that funding will be used to launch a Housing First pilot project, said Charlie Lanter, Lexington's coordinator of homeless services.

The Housing First model provides homeless individuals with permanent housing first, then works to surround participants with the services they need to remain in the home.

Ginny Ramsey, who runs the Catholic Action Center, said the voucher announcement is a step forward.

"It's a good thing that they're bringing more vouchers, because we've got hundreds of homeless veterans and we deal with them everyday," she said.

Ramsey said the issue is one that must be focused on consistently, especially as more soldiers return from deployments overseas and face the struggle of acclimating back to being a civilian.

The center provides services that other shelters may not offer such as laundry services, meal distribution, and providing a safe place for the homeless.

In addition to announcing the rental vouchers, Gray also committed to the Mayors Challenge to End Veteran Homelessness, an initiative recently unveiled at the White House.

"Everyone deserves a safe, clean place they can call home, especially men and women who have served our country," Gray said. "Accepting this challenge is the right thing to do, and Lexington's strong network of partners who serve veterans and other citizens who are homeless will be an important part of this commitment."

Warner, who is now off the streets and living in housing provided by the Catholic Action Center, said he believes these vouchers will translate into shelter for homeless veterans he sees throughout Lexington.

Warner has been on 15 job interviews in the past month, to no avail. Despite the rejections, he remains optimistic and urged residents to talk to homeless veterans the next time they encounter them on the streets.

"They want to be recognized for who they are, not what they've done," he said. "No matter how honorable or how valuable that service might have been they are people too, they are human just like anyone else. They want their needs to be met and one of those is having human interaction."