MIDTOWN — Even as Mayor Bill de Blasio touted an announcement by the federal government that New York City has ended "chronic veteran homelessness," veteran advocates said officials should hold off on taking a victory lap.
A Dec. 29 letter from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Department of Veterans Affairs, and the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness said the city has ended what is defined as chronic veteran homelessness.
That means that veterans with a disability who have been homeless for a year or longer or who have experienced four episodes of homelessness over the past three years, have either been housed or are on a path to being housed.
“The brave women and men who valiantly protected our nation abroad should never be left without a home. Today, we have ensured that those in the veteran community who have struggled to find and remain in housing time and time again will have a stable place to call home," de Blasio said in a statement.
But the designation excludes the approximately 600 veterans living in Department of Homeless Services shelters and the 760 remaining homeless veterans. Two hundred of those veterans in DHS shelters are slated to move out in January. There are also five homeless veterans who have been offered housing but have declined to accept.
"If you are homeless person who lives in a homeless shelter you are still homeless. Are you chronically homeless? No. But you still don't have a permanent home," said Kristen Rouse, executive director of the NYC Veterans Alliance.
Paul Rieckhoff, founder and CEO of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, said many of the homeless veterans he knows may not qualify as disabled and often couch surf with friends to avoid the city's homeless shelters. He's met two homeless veterans living on the street in just the last few days.
"We have to be careful about overstating this victory and decreasing the urgency around veteran homelessness," Rieckhoff said. "This is a nice step forward but just the first step and the easiest step. No one should spike the ball because we are far from goal line."
There are approximately 230,000 veterans in New York City. Officials say that 1,986 homeless veterans have been placed into permanent housing since de Blasio took office in January of 2014.
Of the 760 remaining homeless veterans, which is down from 1,558 at the start of the year, 100 are in federally funded emergency and transitional beds and 60 are in programs run by non-profits.
City officials say they reduced the number of homeless veterans by connecting veterans to housing funds and urging landlords to house homeless veterans.
The federal announcement comes at a critical time for de Blasio, who has faced criticism over his management of the city's homelessness crisis. Two top city officials responsible for handling homelessness have resigned in the last four months.
De Blasio recently announced a 90 day review of how the city delivers services to the homeless and a new effort to connect with the 4,000 street homeless in the city and transition them to permanent housing.
De Blasio, whose father was a decorated World War II veteran who lost a portion of his leg in the bloody Battle of Okinawa, has also come under criticism from the veteran community over his refusal to create a stand-alone city agency for veterans as well as his initial opposition to state legislation that would allow veterans of the conflicts in Afghanistan to add their war service time to help calculate their pensions.
The mayor eventually reversed course on both issues, supporting a stand-alone veterans agency only after the City Council gathered enough votes to override what would have been de Blasio's first veto.
Advocacy groups said at the time that they hoped de Blasio's reversal was the start of a new relationship with the mayor — but Rieckhoff said this week that de Blasio is once again acting "tone deaf" in his announcement, given the remaining number of homeless veterans.
"This reeks of politics when the poll numbers are as low as his," said Rieckhoff. "The mayor still has a disconnect with the veteran community and we still lack a bigger strategy, a vision on veterans issues in New York City."
Rouse said the city could also face another wave of homeless veterans who fought in the post 9/11 conflicts. And, for other homeless city residents trying to transition to permanent housing, landlords have been less than willing to accept veterans' federal housing vouchers.
"Tremendous work has been done but this is just the beginning of making sure veterans who have just been placed in housing and those veterans who are just returning home have long-term support," said Rouse.
The federal government will decide whether the city has ended homelessness for all veterans over the next several months based partly on whether more veterans are moving into permanent housing from shelter than are entering the shelter system.
De Blasio spokeswoman Monica Klein said the city is not done dealing with the issue.
"The answer to homelessness is permanent housing. That is our goal," Klein said. "As we made clear, we are still working hard to find homes for all homeless vets. There is no basis for assuming we will stop."