From a tent, to transitional housing, to home: A Veteran’s 18-year journey

By Evan Mack, Program Manager, Compass Veterans Center

Our city’s homelessness crisis generates a lot of stories. Sometimes there are successes among them, though we rarely hear them. As program manager at the Compass Veterans Center in Renton, here’s one I’d like to share.

Recently, we were introduced to a gentleman, a veteran, who had lived in a tent in the woods for 18 years. I’ll call him Al. Our goal was to find Al permanent housing. There were many barriers to taking the first steps. How would we even begin? We started slowly. Our team took time to develop a relationship, to demonstrate we could genuinely help him. We gave him the time and space he needed to get comfortable with the people who would work with him to access the support he needed.

I’ll be honest, there was not a lot of confidence in Al’s chances for success. He had an 18-year history of “doing it on his own.” Why would he trust us? But we started to work together. We connected him with counseling, a case manager, and resources to ensure that he would quickly stabilize as a new resident.

Supportive On-Site Services

One important way we help our residents is to teach them how to better navigate their own finances, housing and the health care system. We bring the services on site, and as Al would quickly demonstrate, this fosters the positive outcomes we strive for.

The next thing we knew, Al was working on housing applications. We’d see him sitting at one of the community tables, drinking his coffee and filling out forms. Then, after just seven months, surpassing all our expectations, Al found permanent housing. Because it takes time to move beyond the many barriers our residents face, this process can usually take up to two years.

Community building is a key component in services for Veterans

Al’s story is exceptional in so many ways and he puts a human face on how we’ve effectively constructed our program. It’s a testament to the importance of building a diverse staff. Each team member brings in much needed expertise on topics from public housing to local school districts. Their know-how quickly gets our residents established into the program. It continues to support them as they successfully transition out of homelessness.

Each of our 58 units, available to formerly homeless individuals, couples and families, has a veteran as the head-of-household. And we are beating each of the Veteran’s Administration program goals. For example, 77 percent of our residents here go on to permanent housing, above the VA’s 60 percent goal. Tracking them a year later, we found 89 percent of those residents still in permanent housing, well beyond the 50 percent target.

Congressman Adam Smith meets with Veterans in Renton

Making Veteran Homelessness a Memory

I’m not a vet myself, and this is a question that often comes up when I talk about the work I do. After several years of providing support to this population, I’ve come to learn that while our residents are vets, their military service is only one part of their lives. It’s an honor and privilege for me to be on the front line to help make homelessness a part of their history as well.

Evan Mack is the program manager at the Compass Veterans Center in Renton, breaking down the barriers to finding permanent housing for veterans and their families.