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Peduto's claim veterans' homeless plight nearing end angers advocates

Bob Bauder
| Friday, Feb. 12, 2016, 11:18 p.m.
Pittsburgh Mayor William Peduto
Pittsburgh Mayor William Peduto
A screen capture of a tweet from Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto.
Twitter
A screen capture of a tweet from Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto.
A screen capture of a tweet from Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto.
Twitter
A screen capture of a tweet from Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto.

Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto has said the city is on the verge of ending homelessness among veterans, but some advocates say the claims are misleading and have hampered efforts to help homeless vets.

The problem is a federal definition adopted by local leaders, who in 2014 accepted President Obama's challenge to end homelessness among veterans by December 2015. It says: “An end to homelessness means that every community will have a systematic response in place that ensures homelessness is prevented whenever possible or is otherwise a rare, brief, and non-recurring experience.”

It doesn't mean every veteran will have a home.

“If how we measure success doesn't result in a veteran being placed in a warm dwelling and a sustainable plan to help keep them there in a way that's life sustaining, then the entire action is probably going to crumble beneath their feet and it's going to fail,” said Steve Beck, a retired Marine officer from Richland who founded Remembering the Brave, a national volunteer organization dedicated to helping veterans and remembering those killed in action.

Peduto's office said the mayor is proud of the city's collaboration with federal agencies to reduce homelessness among vets.

Marlon Ferguson, executive director of Veterans Place of Washington Boulevard in Pittsburgh, which provides transitional housing and other services to homeless veterans, said it's damaging to suggest the problem is almost solved.

“It's a huge misnomer,” he said. “It hurts our efforts for fundraising because people think the problem is almost solved, and the problem is an ongoing problem.

“We're always identifying new veterans. How can you end something when you really can't define the number of homeless veterans out there?”

Peduto, county officials and veteran advocacy groups including Veterans Place created the Pittsburgh Rapid Results Homeless Veterans' Boot Camp in 2014 to address homelessness.

Allegheny County spokeswoman Amie Downs blamed the media for spreading misinformation.

“Neither the city nor county has ever intimated that it has eliminated veterans homelessness,” she said in an email. “How media outlets report information when responses are provided to them is not something that is within our control, nor is the public's perception of work that we're doing.”

Peduto has posted on Twitter about homelessness among veterans at least twice in recent months.

On Jan. 7, the mayor tweeted: “Great team effort. We are getting closer to zero.” He included a web link to a news story about a reduction in the number of homeless vets.

In his most recent posting on Jan. 21, he wrote, “Joining Forces - @FLOTUS calls on Mayors to end Veterans Homelessness - Pittsburgh has found a home for over 90%.” FLOTUS stands for “first lady of the United States.” The tweet included an image of first lady Michelle Obama.

Peduto spokeswoman Katie O'Malley didn't directly address the messages in response to questions from the Tribune-Review.

“Mayor Peduto has been extremely proud to unite with mayors across the country and join President Obama's Mayor's Challenge to End Veterans Homelessness,” she said in an email. “As of January 31, 2016, over 480 veterans have been housed through the Boot Camp to End Veterans Homelessness.”

She and Downs noted that the boot camp has cultivated collaborations among federal agencies, homeless providers, landlords, local government and housing authorities. Downs said the program would continue efforts “to evaluate and make changes to provide for a sustainable system that allows easy and quick access for homeless services for veterans.”

Matthew Doherty, executive director of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, said it's critical for veterans to have access to homeless services, even though many might not accept them.

“We think it's really critical to focus on what is the outcome that we are seeking and having those programs available,” he said.

Christy Pietryga, a program manager for South Side-based Veterans Leadership Program and chair of the boot camp, said the program has compiled master lists of homeless veterans. They will be updated continually, she said, and permit providers to track homeless in Allegheny County.

There are 201 people on the list, 65 percent of whom have permanent homes. She said the remaining vets are in transitional housing.

“Through this program, effective policies have been made, and effective changes have taken place,” she said. “We have put different policies in place to streamline things to make sure veterans are receiving services faster.”

Ferguson acknowledged the program has been “a huge plus” but its goals “are political goals,” he said.

“It's not a very practical goal,” Ferguson said. “Once it runs its course, we need to sit down and focus on our effectiveness. What does it mean to help?”

Bob Bauder is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-765-2312 or bbauder@tribweb.com.

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